Last year I was lost in Washington DC. It was late at night, I had just arrived in the city and I needed to make my way to a friend’s house in Virginia. Trouble was, my GPS device decided to stop working. This was particularly problematic because the only place I had the address stored was on the GPS device.
I didn’t have a map. I didn’t have the address. And I didn’t even remember the street name. The one thing I did have was my cell phone.
I was able to call my friend and have him walk me through how to get to his house. This was no easy task, as anyone who has navigated through the labyrinthine highway system around the Pentagon can tell you. But fortunately because of modern technology he was able to guide me in, much in the same way my GPS would have done. To me, this was a lifesaver.
Cell phone ban advocates don’t think I should have been allowed to do this. They argue that it is always better to pull over and take a call on the side of the road. I suppose I could have done that. I could have taken down notes on the twenty or so turns I had to make to get to my destination. However, I suspect that trying to decipher my own writing while navigating the suburban VA highway system would have been rather dangerous—as would have pulling over on the side of the freeway after every few turns to get updated directions or trying to read a map.
In reality, having someone calmly give me turn-by-turn directions over the cell phone was probably the safest way for me to get to my destination that night. After all, it allowed me to keep my eyes on the road.
This is but one example of how talking on a cell phone while driving can be beneficial. Of course there are millions of others. Some eleven percent of people behind the wheel at any given point are talking on a phone, according to NHTSA estimates. Those calls—whether they are to order a pizza, catch up with a friend or close a business deal—have some value. A 2002 study by Harvard University estimated that value to be as high as $43 billion per year. The same study concluded that banning cell phones did not outweigh the costs.
It seems to me that point—or any level-headed discussion of the costs and benefits of banning cell phones—is being left out of the debate in the race to ban cell phones in the name of public safety. That is a shame.
Earlier this week the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded. The New York Times and Matt Richtel took home the National Reporting prize for their Distracted Driving series which openly campaign for banning the use of cell phones in cars.
Richtel and the Times did not hesitate to make very alarming claims like that using a cell phone is more dangerous than drunk driving, but they never once discussed the fact that despite the proliferation of cell phones, our roads are safer than ever before. Not only are fewer people dying in car crashes, we are getting in fewer collisions per 100,000 miles driven as well. Of course while the Times gave front page treatment to stories about the dangers of cell phones but relegated the news about declining fatality rates to a blog post.
The series was also unabashed in calling for legislative action to ban the use of all cell phones—even hands-free sets—from cars. But never bothered to discuss the costs and benefits of such a ban.
Let me repeat that, the Pulitzer Prizing-winning series on Distracted Driving not only never addressed the costs and benefits of banning cell phones, but it also suggested that we should restrict the lifesaving communications equipment inside ambulances and fire trucks on the grounds it might be distracting to professional EMS drivers.
In its own write-up of the award, the Times brags that the series has led more than 200 state legislatures and municipal governments to introduce cell-phone ban legislation. I guess it is fitting that a series devoid of level-headed analysis is driving government action. After all, the prize’s namesake, Joseph Pulitzer, is credited along with William Randolph Heart with developing Yellow Journalism.