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October 13th, 2009:

Drivers understand that cell phones just aren’t that dangerous

Measuring the relative danger that different distractions pose to motorists is really hard. Why? Because the dangers posed by different distractions vary tremendously depending on the driver and the intensity of the distraction.

Take kids for example. Is a child sitting peacefully in the backseat likely to pose a big distraction? Probably not. But one that is screaming uncontrollably surely is. The same goes for cell phones. Driving along while paying no attention whatsoever to the road is dangerous, but glancing quickly at a text message is probably no more distracting than changing the temperature.

In both cases, it is the intensity of the distraction as well as the drivers’ reaction to it that matter. And of course, measuring all of thee these variables is very hard if not impossible. This is why the New York Times series on distracted driving has been heavy on the anecdotes and sentimentality and very light on data-driven analysis.

But we need not dream up some perfect experiment to find out what the biggest distractions on the road are. We can simply ask motorists.

The auto website surveyed 3,000 motorists and asked them about the biggest distractions on the road. Not surprisingly, cell phones were not at the top of the list. Noisy kids were.

Driven to distraction

Maybe it’s time to ban carpooling after all.

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