Cell phone driving laws are based on junk science, ignore other distractions and drunk driving

By Ben Alonzo
distracted driving ban

Are you one of a majority of Americans that regularly uses a cell phone while driving? Many lawmakers and media are citing misleading statistics about the effectiveness of texting/cell phone while driving bans. Advances in technology mean more potential life distractions, but distractions have always been around in our daily lives. Education seems to be more effective than taking people’s money and putting them in cages for using cell phones while driving. We will take a look at some of the most frequently cited reports in this article as well as some possible solutions. Distracted driving is a problem, but we may be creating more trouble than help when it comes to distracted driving laws, such as cell phone while driving bans.

How many people die as a direct result of using a cell phone while driving? The answer is not very clear because simply reporting that a cell phone was involved does not mean it was the cause. Consider a distracted driver running a red light and killing another driver that was safely driving while using a cell phone. The media will report that a cell phone was involved, but the truth is that such a fact would be irrelevant. Unfortunately, these are the details a researcher must sift through to determine just how effective such bans are.

In 2011, according to the US Department of Transportation, there were approximately 212 million licensed drivers in America. Roughly 102 million drivers were answering calls and 50 million drivers where placing calls while driving. Using the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2011 numbers, “350 fatal crashes were reported to have involved the use of cell phones as a distraction.” Was it the direct cause or simply reported as involved because it was in use at the time? These are details one must factor when determining accurate reports.

Regardless, running the numbers, the percentage of millions of people driving while using cell phones versus involvement in a fatal crash caused by a cell phone is 0.00023026315789474%.

You can find similar results by calculating traffic fatality statistics using raw data from the National Highway Safety Administration, Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), and Department of Transportation data for other years.

The above calculation is just one example of how the exact details matter when trying to determine effectiveness of a law, medicine, technique, etc.

The National Safety Council (NSC) is commonly quoted by various media outlets and blogs. Their 2013 report about “Annual Estimate of Cell Phone Crashes 2013” describes a model that estimates how many accidents can be attributed to cell phones. Any unbiased statistics expert should be reminded that not all models are equal and they may not perfectly describe reality, which seems to be the case here. This source is being quoted as saying 341,000 accidents were caused by texting while driving, which is not at all accurate.

Reports such as the NSC paper above are often used to support texting bans and fines. The NSC report is only an estimate and does not offer any actual data that backs up the suggested numbers. Suggesting that texting was an attributable factor without any case by case evidence is also an almost blind assumption, especially out of context.

Some highway traffic fatality data sets include details such as “inventory” done at the scene of a fatal traffic accident where there was a cell phone found in a purse or glove box of the car. Simply having a cell phone on you or in your car during a fatal traffic accident is not evidence that such technology was the direct cause (or involved in any way) with the traffic accident. Unfortunately, many are running with such misleading information and passing it on as fact that a cell phone caused such huge amounts of fatalities when it is not the case. Reporters need to be very careful when leaving out such critical details that change the context of such information.

It’s generally a good idea to get a wide perspective, especially on important issues that involve public safety.

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 overreported 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.

Before we go on, it’s also worth mentioning that such an outrageous claim that “using a cell phone while driving is the same as driving while drunk” is simply not reality. Any legitimate, unbiased scientist can debunk such a claim. A majority of drivers regularly use cell phones while driving and do not kill others or cause accidents, posing no danger to the public.

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).

Distractions can come from any number of things, including car radios, reading maps, kids, passengers, bending over to pick up something, putting on make-up, mirrors, glare, loud music, being tired, etc. In fact, some people are just terrible at multitasking and prioritizing. Should a few cause all to be punished?

It’s terrible that some have lost family members due to a traffic accident involving texting. We must accept that distracted driving is going to happen and that some people will die because that is human nature. Unfortunately, many lobbyists will use victims to pull at the hearts of lawmakers and the general public to get their support. It’s critical that people do not react out of blind emotion and realize that making decisions based on misleading information isn’t a good idea in the short or long-term. This is probably also one of the hardest things to accept for family and friends of people that have been killed in distracted driving accidents.

Consider the Western diet, responsible for obesity, diabetes, and millions of deaths each year. Where are the PSA’s and bans on cheeseburgers? Where is the outrage? In fact, there is so much strong evidence for such a case that there is really no argument in the professional health community.

It might be time to rethink cell phone bans, especially how we decide on and research such matters.

A good recommendation would be to keep better traffic accident records, which would allow better (more factual) research to occur. Better data leads to better research, which leads to better solutions. Rather than stating that a cell phone was in a car during an accident (doesn’t prove it had anything to do with the accident), records should clearly indicate, especially in a fatality accident, that the accident was a direct result of the cell phone. Otherwise, it is misleading to suggest to the public (and lawmakers) that such a significant number of traffic fatalities had any significant relationship to texting or cell phone use while driving.

Parents and high schools should take some time to remind young people that they should prioritize and know how to appropriately multitask. If they cannot do it, they should learn self-control, which is a major challenge for our child and adult population today. Threatening them with jail time and fines isn’t going to solve this problem (and it hasn’t). Education and common sense can go a long way.

It is a disservice to spread misleading traffic statistics to the general public and lawmakers regarding texting/cell phone use while driving. To this date, there is no single scientifically proven study to indicate that a ban on cell phone use while driving significantly reduces traffic accidents in the long-term. In addition, “distracted driving” includes far more than cell phone use, despite media reports that cell phones are the sole culprit.

Many, if not all of the commonly quoted “studies” simply “estimate” and “model” risk and are not based on direct verifiable/reproducible evidence that indicates a cell phone directly caused accidents and fatalities in such significant amounts.  It’s a shame that such large media outlets report such misleading details. Of course, many will say 1 accident/death is significant, but this is not reality when you have over 200 million licensed drivers and more than half regularly using cell phones while driving.

Our decisions should be based off of actual *factual* data, when available. Rather than assume, attempt to blindly attribute, or model texting while driving risks, we should look at case by case evidence for each traffic accident where a cell phone was proven to be the direct cause of the event. There are numerous ways to determine if a cell phone was involved in a traffic accident, including time stamps of texts/calls, call logs, etc.

There is also a difference between texting while driving and being on the phone (voice calls) while driving. It would seem obvious that texting would be more distracting, yet many laws are written to even include simply holding your phone or touching it while driving. Once again, this is 2016 and most people use phones out of necessity and everyday life function. Our laws need to be current in context and reflect modern life.

There’s even a bit of hypocrisy involved in texting/cell phone bans. The same person responding in support to a survey for a cell phone ban is often the same person that self-identifies as regularly using one while driving. Ignorance, sensationalism, and hypocrisy are all over social media — everyone has an opinion about cell phone bans, but few know the details and actual data.

It is worth mentioning (and this may come as a shock to some) that even if a cell phone was used during an accident, it does not automatically mean it was the cause of the event.

Example: Consider Person A stopped at a red light and gets rear-ended by Person B. Person A was on a cell phone while stopped at a red light. Person B was not using a cell phone but was not paying attention because he was tired and ends up hitting Person A at full speed. Would you blame Person A for being on the cell phone? At the end of the day, it’s likely that the fact Person A was on a cell phone will be recorded by someone (e.g., highway patrol) and the media would likely report a cell phone being involved, despite that fact being irrelevant to the events.

In fact, as highways get larger and commutes get longer through urban sprawl and blight, we should not be surprised to see significant traffic fatalities. Unfortunately, most people use cell phones today (as a necessity of life), so by simply finding a cell phone in a purse at a fatal traffic accident, it would be easy (and misleading) to blame the accident on such technologies.

Cell phones and texting are hot topics right now, but other future technologies are likely to change the discussion, such as automated transportation (i.e., self-driving vehicles).

In a country that claims it values freedom so much, it’s ironic that the first action of the masses is to react out of blind emotion, give up freedoms, enact more overbearing restrictions, excessive, unnecessary laws, fines, and put people in cages. We cannot force common sense, but we can educate people, rather than put them in cages and take their money, which doesn’t actually solve any traffic problems. The best decisions and solutions come from informed people and start with the individual.

Author: Ben Alonzo is a unique scientist, tech expert, professor, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s CEO of the sci-tech firm Storm Sector, LLC. Ben holds an M.S. in Information Technology, M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Nutrition and Health, and a B.S. in Geoscience. He’s a highly-rated professor that teaches earth science, environmental science, oceanography, meteorology, and public health. His diverse background spans numerous fields, network and computer systems, healthcare, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, and web development. Ben holds numerous professional licenses and certifications, ranging from information technology to healthcare and emergency medical technician. He’s also an FAA-licensed private pilot that loves flying. He’s been writing about science and tech for over 10 years. You can see some of his past articles on the Houston Chronicle, eHow, Hearst, and other networks. In his free time, he loves athletic adventures, scuba diving, traveling, storm chasing, producing videos and writing guitar music. More about author.

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