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March 12th, 2010:

Roads safer than ever before but the NYT still wants to ban cell phones

Stuck in trafficIf you read all of the scary stories about how distracting cell phones are to drivers, you’d probably think that our roads are becoming a more dangerous place. After all, how could they not be? The ‘safety experts’ keep telling us that talking using cell phones while driving is as dangerous than driving drunk! And more and more Americans are buying the kind of smart phones that make texting and emailing a breeze. The roads must surely be getting more dangerous.

Well, not really. According to new data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic fatalities fell by over 8.9 percent last year. That is the fourth straight year that they declined dramatically. When you look at fatalities per-100,000 miles driven, our roads are safer than they have ever been before.

And it is not just that our cars are better at keeping people alive—they are. But collisions are down dramatically as well. Simply put, Americans are getting in fewer car crashes than ever before.

And no, it is not because cell phone bans are saving lives. According to a comprehensive study that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted (they are one of the big groups supporting cell phone bans), cell phone bans succeed in getting people to hang up and drive—but don’t actually make our roads any safer at all.

To quote the director of the study:

We still don’t think we understand this fully… But one possibility is that while cell phones are a distraction, maybe they are not all that much worse a distraction than many of the other things that we do.

So why is it we need to ban drivers from using cell phones again?

Necessity is the mother of invention (and hoaxes)

The other day I asked if the Prius sudden acceleration hoax in California might actually be the greatest negative campaign stunt in American history.

Well, the folks over at Jalopnik have been digging into the story and it turns out the guy who owned the car was $750k in debt and might have been behind on his car payments. Oh, and he also has a history of making insurance claims on big-ticket items that go missing.

All in all, it looks like the Prius sudden acceleration hoax is just an imaginative remake of an insurance scam and not a devilishly brilliant smear campaign against Toyota.

I knew Detroit wasn’t that clever.

[Hat tip: Kevin]

Now the New York Times says EMS computers are dangerous [distracted driving]

Bowie Pointer Ridge Ambulance

I thought that the New York Times’ sensationalistic tirade against the dangers of billboards must signal the end of their “distracted driving” crusade. After all, I imagine it would be hard to continue taking yourself seriously once you start suggesting that we need to regulate the outside environment on the grounds that if it is interesting to look at drivers might be distracted by it.

But alas, I was wrong.

Yesterday Matt Richtel (the reporter behind the Times’ Distracted Driving series) outdid himself yet again. The latest dangerous distraction he has uncovered on the roads? The computers in ambulances, police cars and fire trucks that first-responders use to communicate with 9-1-1 dispatch.

Let me say that again.

The New York Times ran a story about how the computers, navigation and communication systems that help guide police, firefighters and EMS to the scene of an emergency are potentially distracting to their professional drivers.

From the New York Times:

They are the most wired vehicles on the road, with dashboard computers, sophisticated radios, navigation systems and cellphones.

While such gadgets are widely seen as distractions to be avoided behind the wheel, there are hundreds of thousands of drivers — police officers and paramedics — who are required to use them, sometimes at high speeds, while weaving through traffic, sirens blaring.

The drivers say the technology is a huge boon for their jobs, saving valuable seconds and providing instant access to essential information. But it also presents a clear risk — even the potential to take a life while they are trying to save one.

Scared yet? Don’t be. In an uncharacteristic bit of honesty, Richtel admits that his sensationalistic story is pretty much just anecdotes and fear mongering.

Data does not exist about crashes caused by police officers or medics distracted by their devices. But there are tragic anecdotes.

Tragic anecdotes and shoddy or nonexistent statistics? If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s what the entire Distracted Driving series is based on.

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