Cell phone while driving bans are unscientific, not effective, and fatality data is misunderstood, scientists say

By Ben Alonzo 0 Comments
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Beware, there are people that want you fined and put in jail for texting while walking, not just for touching your phone while driving. New technology is the modern scapegoat for lobbyists looking to cash in on the latest consumer trends. Nearly 95% of Americans use phones and most do so safely while driving. Scientists say lobbyists and bans are using misleading traffic fatality data that is not understood and that the effectiveness of bans is questionable. The actual truth may shock you and is just another example of America failing to embrace science and twisting our national priorities up so bad that it’s embarrassing. More people die from driving tired than using cell phones. Yet there isn’t a lot of lobbying behind tired driving.

Anti-Texting Laws Not Based in Science

There’s a lot of anti-texting campaigns going on and some even go as far as the idea of punishing (taking cash from) people for simply walking around while texting. It might shock some people to realize that the entire demonization campaign of using cell phones in the car, or while walking, is not based in any actual science – it’s all emotion and fear-based rhetoric. How many people actually know where the texting while driving statistics come from or what it actually means?

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) uses the terms distracted driving and distraction-affected fatalities. Distracted driving doesn’t automatically mean a cell phone caused a fatality. Distraction-affected just means that there was a distraction factor thought to be involved. In both cases, the evidence is weak for direct cause, unless there were witnesses and correlated timing on a text message, which demonstrated beyond a doubt that the use of a cell phone was the only and direct cause of a fatal traffic accident. However, scientifically, this is even weak evidence of causation. Correlation doesn’t automatically mean causation.

Consider the example of two cars approaching a 4-way intersection. Car A is driving quickly and runs a stop sign, striking car B head-on. During an investigation, it was determined that Car B was stopped (lawfully) at the intersection before the stop sign, but this person had made a phone call or was on the phone while he was lawfully stopped. Car A is the one at fault, the one that ran the stop sign, and that ended up killing the person in Car B. However, because the person in Car B had been recently using/touching his cell phone, the investigation includes this in reports. This information makes it to the overall statistics and is reported as a cell phone fatality. This isn’t the only misleading data, but you can see how the relevance of having or using a cell phone is very questionable, especially if it isn’t the direct cause of a fatal accident. Without actually digging into the data, many report the misleading findings and we see ourselves where we are today.

In another example, consider a vehicle where EMTs are called to a crash. They determine the person is dead on arrival and turn over the case to the highway patrol. Both agencies record the contents of the vehicle, regardless of what happened. It’s noted that the person had a cell phone in the car. Many reporters use these statistics (as lobbyists do) to make the cell phone while driving issue seem worse than it actually is, leading to knee-jerk legislative actions. The fact that an object is found in a car doesn’t mean it has any relevance to a fatality or that it was the cause of any traffic accident. This is another case of poor reporting, misleading statistics, and ultimately an example of junk science. Lobbyists know they can skew the data by simply leaving these facts out of the public view.

The current statistics, as presented by US DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTS) make it clear that simply touching or in any way using a cell phone is considered a positive factor for an accident. No doubt, any kind of object or noise can distract you while driving, but the idea that cell phones are especially evil is unscientific, baseless, and extremely misleading. We’ve essentially setup a system of questionable statistics and summaries that mislead the public.

Cell Phone Ban Effectiveness

Scientists are questioning the actual long-term effectiveness of anti-texting and cell phone bans. It’s generally a good idea to get a wide perspective, especially on important issues that involve public safety. Most of our anti-phone laws specifically target drivers. Many states fine people for simply touching their phones while driving, such as Nevada and California. These bans are sold to people by telling them it will make them safer and reduce fatalities. One thing is in common among all states with cell phone bans: it makes money by fining people that are otherwise not doing anything wrong, other than utilizing modern technology.

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) released the findings of their 2010 study, which states “the new findings, released today at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association, are consistent with those of a previous HLDI study, which found that banning hand-held phone use while driving doesn’t cut crashes.” Texting bans do not reduce crashes.

In another example, Abouk and Adams (2013), published a study in the American Economic Journal. This study attempted to research primary and secondary distracting driving offenses. However, the ultimate outcome was that there is no lasting impact from texting bans. “Any reduction in accidents following texting bans is short-lived, however, with accidents returning to near former levels within a few months. This is suggestive of drivers reacting to the announcement of the legislation only to return to old habits shortly afterward.

Wide perspective is a missing element of most American issues. NPR did a great segment on how text bans could actually make roads less safe. “Russ Rader is with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which does research for insurers. He says laws can even backfire as drivers try to hide their phones lower down in their lap. Also, he says cellphone bans can only do so much since cellphones are only a small fraction of what distracts drivers.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers also points out several studies that indicate conflicting information about cell phone ban effectiveness. Essentially, momentum for cell phone bans has picked up, but the supporting data hasn’t.

Many insurance researchers suggest that texting accidents are underreported. This is an assumption based on the idea that people would try to hide the use of a cell phone during a traffic accident investigation. At the other end of the spectrum, many can also suggest that texting accidents are over-reported because texting is being attributed to accidents despite the lack of evidence to prove it was a direct cause of the event. Highway patrol reports can list the inventory of a vehicle at a fatality accident, often stating that a cellphone was found. However, the fact that a cell phone was found inside a car at a traffic accident doesn’t mean it was automatically involved in the cause.

There’s no argument that distracted driving is a problem. At a time when such large amounts of people have very little attention span, care for others, value of human life, consideration, and are just prone to accident, now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions. Again, everyone knows distractions are a problem. However, our response to dealing with modern technology should not be out of blind emotion, misleading information, and so many more unnecessary laws (ironic trend in such a “free” country).

It seems like such a noble cause to outlaw distracted driving, but it’s already against the law. The idea of a cell phone ban seems to be nothing more than an attempt to collect more capital from everyday people. Cell phones are a necessity in life, today. The US has an issue with trying to force common sense on people. After all, how can anyone argue against such a reasonable-sounding law that claims its purpose is to protect everyone and make the roads safer?

Anti-texting laws are often sold to people with emotional stories about people unfortunately losing loved ones in texting fatal car crashes. One could understand why the families of these lost people would be upset or seeking some kind of cause to remedy their feelings. Acting out of emotion only isn’t a good decision-making process. Cell phone bans are not rooted in any sound science. Worst of all, the bans are not effective in the long-term for what they claim to address.

Scientists know that anyone can tweak numbers to make an issue out of something that doesn’t exist. There were some early signs that texting and cell phone bans weren’t so effective. Back in 2014, McCartt et al. stated that studies varied widely, had poor controls, and the effects were inconclusive or “unclear.” The authors rightfully note that crash risk associated with cell phone use is not well understood.

In 2010, the NTSB was made aware of studies that showed cell phone bans were not effective.

The NTSB’s own reports indicate that driving while tired is much more of a problem than using a cell phone in the car. Some of the numbers seem to indicate tired drivers account for almost triple to quadruple the number of cell phone-distracted fatalities. Where is the discussion of these facts in the media? Where are the campaigns against driving while tired?

“Drowsy driving accounted for 2.6 percent of all crash fatalities; at least 846 people died in these crashes in 2014.”

Despite anti-texting and cell phone ban legislation’s failure, junk science, fear and ignorance, lobbyists know this is a cash-making opportunity. In fact, Honolulu, Hawaii now fines people $99 for texting while crossing the street. This is embarrassing and is the most obvious case of forcing common sense being reported by the media right now. There’s an education and critical thinking capacity issue that isn’t going to be solved by taking money away from citizens.

Ludicrous Claim: Cell Phone While Driving Just as Bad as Drunk Driving

There was once a study that claimed using a cell phone while you drive was supposed to be just the same as driving drunk. There are several problems: this isn’t true, science doesn’t back it up, the statistics totally conflict with this, and the media ran with the story anyways. This is another example of junk science being used to demonize something that could be handled in a more constructive and scientific way.

According to the NHTSA reports, in 2015 alone, 10,265 people died in alcohol-related driving crashes. This is about 29% of all traffic fatalities that year. Compare this to 100-300 deaths from traffic accidents that had a paper report of someone touching or using a cell phone close to the time of the crash (doesn’t mean cell phone caused it).

According to a US DOT 2010 report, about 4 million US adults reported driving while under the influence of alcohol at least once. Alcohol-related traffic crashes accounted for at least 13,365 deaths that year. There are two scientific and statistical differences that stand out with these facts. First, there is no comparison, even for adjusted population among those that use cell phones versus drunk drivers. Pew estimates that at least 95% of Americans use cell phones. That’s millions of people and we should see more than 100-300 deaths per year for texting crashes, if there was any science to the cell phone while driving demonization campaigns. Secondly, the number of drunk drivers is extremely underestimated. Most people don’t willingly go and report the number of times they’ve been driving drunk. There’s a lot more people doing it than these reports indicate.

What’s scary is less than 1% of the total amount of self-reported drunk drivers actually get arrested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. However, this is a more reasonable figure because the rest of the data backs it up: drunk driving is underestimated, underreported, and people aren’t going to tell on themselves.

There is no comparison between using a cell phone while driving and drunk driving, at least according to sound science.

Alcohol impairs metabolic functions involving glucose and glycogen. It’s a depressant that impairs central nervous system function. This means that there is a decreased level of motor control. There’s an electrical activity reduction in the brain. Alcohol use can also lead to kidney, liver, and heart damage. Women are more greatly affected by alcohol because their neutralizing system is less efficient than men, physiologically. This is extremely simplified just to show you there is no comparison with texting while driving. Numerous complicated heart, circulatory, endocrine, and muscular processes take place by simply taking a drink. As the level of blood alcohol increases, and this doesn’t take much, the level of coordination and ability to otherwise safely drive dramatically decreases. Nobody is arguing that fact. Drunk driving is just not comparable to using a cell phone.

Multitasking

Millions of people safely use cell phones, even while driving. In fact, there are people that multitask because it’s part of their job. Dig deep enough and you will even see the anti-texting and anti-cell phone laws usually have loopholes in them on purpose that recognize the necessity of using a cell phone. Examples of necessity include truck drivers, utility workers, fire, police, emergency medical, emergency management, ham radio operators, just to name a few. These people regularly operate electronic devices in their cars. Consider the example of a police officer using radios, flipping siren switches, and even having a laptop in their car – all while driving. Distracted driving crashes happen, but they are grossly misunderstood, exaggerated, and overestimated in some ways.

Multitasking is nothing new, but the technology we have in the car seems new. Before cell phones, people had CD players, turned around to slap their kids in the back seat, put on makeup, read large paper maps, books, dropped something on the floor, ate fast food without any hands on the wheel, and drove with countless other distractions. Crashes occurred back then too, but we’re acting like cell phones have somehow changed the distracted driving dynamic – they haven’t.

Distractions are nothing new. Many act as if there were never traffic fatalities before cell phones and texting. Consider this example safety film from the 1950s, which discusses simply crossing a road. People have died because they ran out into the street without looking — well before cell phones were invented.

Multitasking isn’t for everyone. There are some people that just can’t do two things at once. In a technological society that is based on sound science, the people and government must recognize that critical thinking skills must increase, more technology will be integrated/used, and our laws must recognize this, not demonize it. Unfortunately, we cannot force common sense, which seems to be what an ever-growing list of excessive and outdated thinking, laws, and lobbying brings to the nation.

Solutions

Our traffic laws should be based on sound science and not fear or emotion alone. Science doesn’t back up the claim that texting or using a cell phone in the car is just the same as drunk driving. Science doesn’t back up the claim that anti-phone laws are working, especially in the long-term. Such laws and ideas seem to be rooted in lobbyist efforts that focus on the bottom line of financial gain from the public, essentially telling them you will be fined because it makes everyone safer. Our priorities are far from reasonable, scientific, and necessary.

One way we can combat distracted driving is by understanding it, applying sound science, and educating others. First, we have to be very thorough in discussion of the statistics, questioning the validity of everything that isn’t substantiated through the scientific method. Applying sound science means the claims made by news stories, traffic crash reports, or other statistical reports have to be backed up by more than emotional campaigns, there must be ample direct evidence of long-term benefit and effects. By understanding the real picture about distracted driving, we can start determining where the biggest problems are.

The campaigns that utilize catchy videos and emotional testimonies are misguided at best. Although it’s a terrible experience to lose a loved one in a crash, it doesn’t automatically mean that these people should be used to demonize something that millions of people do safely. It’s very hard to say anything against these campaigns because people are so emotional. They aren’t looking at the actual science and understanding what the data actually says. This is basically a big educational issue. Imagine a nation of people that embraced sound science. People would be able to identify what’s factual and what isn’t, rather than being told by lobbyists, talk show hosts, or other flashy commercials and advertisements.

We should discuss how people might use phones in a safer way while driving, such as utilizing the speakerphone or Bluetooth links into their vehicle audio system. In fact, this alone should negate the cell phone while driving claims because it would integrate control into the steering wheel (where the controls are for the phone), since that’s where a person’s hands are while driving anyways. There’s actually no reason to ban cell phones, especially once they can be integrated wirelessly into a vehicle’s existing control platforms. This would make cell phone bans completely irrelevant. If we’re also going to have self-driving cars, such a thing would also make cell phone bans completely unnecessary.

Science is pretty clear about cell phones: most people safely use them, laws are not based in science, and the existing statistics are flawed. There’s a discussion that should take place and it must involve applying sound science to the distracted driving problem. Our decisions and laws should be based on sound science alone. We’re going to be better off, once we realize all of these things.

bio
About Author: Ben Alonzo is a scientist, tech expert, professor, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s currently CEO of the media and tech firm Storm Sector. Ben holds an M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Nutrition and Health Sciences, and a B.S. in Geoscience. He’s a highly-rated professor that teaches several courses at multiple colleges, including earth science, environmental science, oceanography, meteorology, and public health. His diverse background spans numerous science fields, enterprise network and computer systems, healthcare, telecommunications, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, computer programming, and web development. Ben holds numerous professional licenses and certifications, ranging from information technology to healthcare and emergency medical technician. He’s been writing about science and technology for over 10 years. You can also see some of his past articles on the Houston Chronicle, eHow, Sciencing, Hearst, and other news networks. In his free time, he loves to scuba dive, travel, and write guitar music. More about the author.
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