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Distracted Driving

Giving birth while driving, now that is distracting

From the Detroit Free Press:

Amanda McBride went into labor last week as she was on her way to North County Regional Hospital, the Bemidji Pioneer reported.

General Motors said Wednesday that it would give a year’s supply of diapers to the Minnesota woman who delivered a baby while driving a Chevy car.

She was driving a red 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

Joseph Phillips, the expectant father, was riding shotgun because he suffers from seizures.

“She yelled at me to grab the wheel,” Phillips told the newspaper.

He did. And she pulled down her pants. “And then the baby just came right out,” the woman was quoted as saying. “I was just sitting on the seat, and he just slid out. It really wasn’t bad at all.”

She held the baby, turned the heat up in the car and allowed Phillips to steer them to the hospital where everyone arrived safely.

MI Governor to sign texting ban on the Oprah Show

As if we needed any more proof that the push for cell phone bans is driven emotion and fear more than rational debate. But I guess since the main effect of this legislation is to appease stay-at-home moms and technophobic seniors, signing the bill on the Oparh show is probably a good stunt.

WNEM has the details:

LANSING, Mich. — A ban on the use of cell phones to send text messages or e-mail while driving in Michigan will be signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Friday’s “TheOprah Winfrey Show.”

The Michigan House passed the third and final bill in a texting ban package by an 82-22 vote Wednesday. The Senate already has passed the bill.

The Legislature passed the main bills in the package earlier this month.

The ban is to take effect July 1. It makes texting a primary offense, meaning police could pull over motorists for texting alone.

A first offense would cost $100 and repeat offenses would cost $200.

I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating. According to a comprehensive study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (who supports such laws), banning cell phones in cars does not save any lives. None.

Why is no one talking about the benefits of using cell phones while driving?

cell phoneLast 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.

They give out Pulitzer Prizes for this? [distracted driving]

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.

This particular series relies almost exclusively on tragic anecdotes and technophobic scaremongering.  The data presented in the series  supporting banning cell phones  are based largely on eye-ball tracking studies and simulators—not real-world field tests.

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.

They even wrote sensationalist stories about the need to ban billboards and EMS and Fire Truck communication equipment on the basis that they might be distracting.

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.

This is the series that defeated an in-depth look at the shady dealings of Goldman Sachs for the Pulitzer.

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.

Arguments for banning cell phones in cars

I spend a lot of time poking fun at the New York Times and other ‘safety experts’ who want to banish cell phones from cars, so I thought it only fair to take some time to listen to some of their arguments. To kick things off, here is a recent public service ad from the Highway Department of Victoria, Australia.

[via How We Drive]

Will the safety experts call for a bumper sticker ban now? [distracted driving]

IMG_5738cr.jpgTrying to read a bumper sticker on another car can be distracting for many of us. And it can be especially dangerous if you tailgate the car in order to get a better view of the sticker.

But for some people, seeing a simple Obama-Biden sticker is enough to send them into a mad rage and deliberately cause an accident. Perhaps the New York Times will add bumper stickers to their growing list of things we should ban in the name of road safety.

WKRN Nashville has the details of one case of bumper sticker road rage:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A Nashville man says he and his 10-year-old daughter were victims of road rage Thursday afternoon, all because of a political bumper sticker on his car.

Mark Duren told News 2 the incident happened around 4:30p.m., while he was driving on Blair Boulevard, not far from Belmont University.

He said Harry Weisiger gave him the bird and rammed into his vehicle, after noticing an Obama-Biden sticker on his car bumper.

Duren had just picked up his 10-year-old daughter from school and had her in the car with him.

“He pointed at the back of my car,” Duren said, “the bumper, flipped me off, one finger salute.”

But it didn’t end there.

Duren told News 2 that Weisiger honked his horn at him for awhile, as Duren stopped at a stop sign.

Once he started driving again, down Blair Boulevard, towards his home, he said, “I looked in the rear view mirror again, and this same SUV was speeding, flying up behind me, bumped me.”

Duren said he applied his brake and the SUV smashed into the back of his car.

He then put his car in park to take care of the accident, but Weisiger started pushing the car using his SUV.

Duren said, “He pushed my car up towards the sidewalk, almost onto the sidewalk.”

Police say Harry Weisiger is charged with felony reckless endangerment in the incident.

Michigan Senate votes to make texting while driving a primary offense [distracted driving]

Long Beach Harbor Patrol Say No Photography From a Public SidewalkWhile they can’t find the time to balance the state budget, qualify for $800 million in federal road funds, or reform the state’s broken tax structure, the Michigan State Senate did find time today to pass sweeping legislation criminalizing the use of cell phones in cars. This is apparently a pressing issue—despite the fact that our roads are safer than ever before.

Under the bill, texting while driving would be a primary offence. This means that a police officer can pull you over for texting while driving—not just write you an additional ticket for it after you’ve already been stopped.

The Detroit Free Press has more:

The 28-10 Senate vote means the House must now agree with the Senate change. That agreement is uncertain because many House members opposed allowing police to stop drivers for text messaging, as they can for not wearing a seat belt. But Rep. Lee Gonzales, D-Flint, sponsor of the original bill, said he prefers the Senate version and said he’ll try to muster enough votes in the House to go along with it.

How, exactly the police will determine who is texting remains to be seen. I don’t know about you, but when I use a cell phone in the car it is often on my lap—a place that is very hard for anyone not in the car to see. Does this bill mean that anyone who glances down can now be pulled over for suspected texting while driving? What if I’m looking down to put hot sauce on my Taco Bell and the police think I’m texting? Will I get a ticket for that?

Here is more Distracted Driving coverage, including a look at why it is silly to ban cell phones in cars.

Chicken Little Safety Experts [cartoon]

An excellent editorial cartoon from last Sunday’s Detroit News.

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?

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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