Cellphone bans haven’t made roads safer

Automotive anarchists will be overjoyed. AT&T, Verizon and Rogers executives will be high-fiving each other with unprecedented I-told-you-so fervour. And Big Brother’s safety czars will be in full denial mode, wondering quite why their all-powerful lobbyists didn’t quash these cockamamie studies before they saw the light of day.

It turns out that talking on cellphones may not be dangerous after all; or, at least, the current bans on their use are ineffective. Yup, despite all the hype, countless studies and the pontificating by the self-righteously smug that hordes of us are dying because we were all so distracted by our iPhones, it turns out the banning of in-car communications by many jurisdictions (including Ontario) has not reduced accidents one iota. Indeed, there’s a possibility that the restrictions made things worse.

According to the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), while actual hand-held cellphone usage declined in states that enacted bans, accident rates did not. Indeed, according to a study by the U.S. Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), texting bans have actually increased accident rates. The HLDI compared each state’s accident rate before and after the texting bans as well as with neighbouring jurisdictions without any texting restrictions and, according to Adrian Lund, president of the HLDI as well as the IIHS, “Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted.”

Now even a skeptical libertine such as your rules-phobic Motor Mouth isn’t ready to proclaim that texting while driving saves lives. According to the HLDI, it’s not the concept of preventing in-car typing that is driving the seemingly wonky statistics but rather the execution of the ban. In a classic be-wary-of-what-you-wish-for unintended consequence — and, now, this is me being self-righteously smug since I predicted something like this in my original Motor Mouth on Ontario’s ban — drivers are simply holding their smartphones lower to escape detection, resulting in even greater distraction.

Software that prevents texting in a moving car would seem to be a better solution than driving our automotive communications underground. On-board communications devices that read text messages aloud would also seem to be a solution, though I suspect that truly devoted rules and regulations statists will decry any mobile communications device as the work of the devil. And, of course, that doesn’t address the possibility that talking on a cellphone, hands-free or not, doesn’t appear to be a distraction at all.

Of course, you’re not going to see massive coverage of these latest studies. They certainly won’t generate as much ink as has been devoted to the horrible consequences as saying, “Yes, dear, I won’t forget the 2 per cent” while driving. We like our 15-second sound bites easily digested, which is why any statistical opposition to the outwardly logical intuition that cellphones are distracting — like any rationally argued contradiction of the “speed kills” accepted wisdom — is unlikely to gain much traction. Besides, “Cellphones not dangerous” is hardly an attention-grabbing headline. The National Enquirer, after all, hardly trumpets “Celebrity dad pays his alimony cheques on time” headlines nor does The Economist make its money with “Hey, the world economy is doing just hunky-dory” cover stories.

And, indeed, none of this information has prevented the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from calling for a complete ban on in-car cellphone use, hands-free or not. It’s even trumpeting the perfect eyeball-riveting mantra, positing distracted driving “as the new DUI.”

“It’s becoming an epidemic,” says NTSB member Robert Sumwalt.

The Safety Board cites statistics that show that, at any given time in work-a-day America, 13.5 million drivers are using their cellphones behind the wheel and that being distracted by Android was the cause of more than 3,000 fatalities last year in the United States. Of course, like so many such headline-generating statistics, one has to consider how they are derived. Unlike drunk driving, which can be established post mortem, how does one ask a dead driver if he was actually gabbing with his girlfriend at the exact moment he drove headlong into that semi?

What seems to be lost in the entire kerfuffle is any form of common sense. Taking your eyes off the road to text would seem to be a no-brainer as a distraction, though, as noted above, the current ban would seem to be a complete waste of time.

Ditto having to dial a phone while driving. But a “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts” — the very definition of common sense by Merriam-Webster — would seem to dictate that any argument with your significant other would be equally distracting whether it was via a handheld phone or she was sitting right next to you, yelling in your right ear.

Let’s see them ban that.

Is banning cellphone use while driving an encroachment on our civil liberties?

Perhaps even more troubling — or perhaps this is me just being an automotive anarchist again — is the seeming lack of concern for encroachment of our civil liberties endemic to bans such as those on cellphones. (I was once told by a local constable who stopped me because he thought I was cellphoning that I really shouldn’t lean my head on my left arm because that “is what we look for when we’re targeting illegal communicators.”) The science behind the hand-held cellphone ban would seem to be at least slightly wonky, but few are protesting the restrictions. Just as few want to proclaim they are in favour of drinking and driving (though, as the National Post’s own Lorne Gunter recently pointed out, Alberta’s recent law suspending your licence at a 0.05 blood alcohol level fails to target the real problem of drunk driving), nobody is standing up and saying there’s enough intrusion into our lives. It’s not that far down the proverbial slippery slope to where we’ll no longer be allowed to drive our own cars, more reliable and accident-free computers being forced on us all.

Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG