This post has been getting a huge amount of search-engine traffic recently. Thank you for the visits! If you’re looking for more data on the dangers (or lack thereof) of cell phones in cars, check out this post as well.
Regular readers of this blog will know that the New York Times is waging a sensationalistic campaign to ban the use of cell phones while driving.
To this end, the Times has run at least seven stories, editorialized, released a movie and even produced a (not very realistic, from my experiences) texting-while-driving computer game as part of its ongoing Driven to Distraction series.
A casual reading of the series would doubtless leave most people with the impression that our roads are getting more dangerous and that cell phones are likely responsible. But this is not the case.
The truth is that our roads have never been safer.
Yes, you read that correctly. Despite the dramatic proliferation of cell phones over the last decade—more than 80 percent of Americans now use them—driving in America is safer than it has ever been.
The graph below shows the decline of fatal car crashes and the increase in cell phone use over the last fifteen years. I created it with accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Pew Center for People and the Press. Traffic fatalities are measured in deaths per 100 million miles driven.
Does this mean that cell phones are actually making us better drivers?
Probably not. Vehicle fatality rates have steadily declined since cars were first widely available in the 1920s. But the graph does show that cell phones are not making are roads dramatically more dangerous. And they are certainly not the kind of threat that warrants a three month crusade from the New York Times.
This does not mean that cell phones are not distracting and potentially dangerous. They are. But as a 2006 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute suggests, they are no more dangerous than many other distractions, like passengers, grooming, and eating. Perhaps we should ban carpooling instead. After all, it could save more lives than banning cell phones.