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.
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.
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.
While 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 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?
If 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.
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.
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?
After that, the Times discovered that some drivers might occasionally glance at a billboard and this might—you guessed it—be distracting.
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.
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.