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“It’s us vs them”

Canadian Goose Landing 1This is why I love Mayor Bloomberg.

The mayor responding to questions about New York City’s plan to kill 18,000 Canadian geese to improve air safety:

“People are not going to stop flying and we have to make a decision. It’s geese or human beings.” And which faction does the mayor support in this inter-species warfare? “I can tell you where I come out on that. I don’t think you need a quote from me.”

[via New York Mag]

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.

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.

Will the soda tax drive New Yorkers to the bottle?

7 Eleven Beer Can, 1970's

Where has 7-Eleven brand beer been all my life?

Governor Patterson’s cent-per-ounce soda tax might be the most regressive new tax proposal around (as was pointed out in a previous post by commenter John), but it still has a silver lining—at least for the beer companies.

The New York Times’ City Room Blog reports that if passed, the soda tax would make some six-packs of beer cheaper than coke.

Now I enjoy an ice cold Coca-Cola as much as the next guy. But let’s be honest, if beer and Coke are even close to the same price, beer wins every time.

Of course entirely swapping beer for soda in your diet will be a little difficult unless they repeal some of our oppressive public consumption laws.

[City Room]

The graph the New York Times doesn’t want you to see

This post has been getting a huge amount of search-engine traffic recently. Thank you for the visits! If you’re looking for more data on the dangers (or lack thereof) of cell phones in cars, check out this post as well.

Regular readers of this blog  will know that the New York Times is waging a sensationalistic campaign to ban the use of cell phones while driving.

To this end, the Times has run at least seven stories, editorialized, released a movie and even produced a (not very realistic, from my experiences) texting-while-driving computer game as part of its ongoing  Driven to Distraction series.

A casual reading of the series would doubtless leave most people with the impression that our roads are getting more dangerous and that cell phones are likely responsible.  But this is not the case.

The truth is that our roads have never been safer.

Yes, you read that correctly. Despite the dramatic proliferation of cell phones over the last decade—more than 80 percent of Americans now use them—driving in America is safer than it has ever been.

The graph below shows the decline of fatal car crashes and the increase in cell phone use over the last fifteen years. I created it with accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Pew Center for People and the Press. Traffic fatalities are measured in deaths per 100 million miles driven.


Does this mean that cell phones are actually making us better drivers?

Probably not.  Vehicle fatality rates have steadily declined since cars were first widely available in the 1920s. But the graph does show that cell phones are not making are roads dramatically more dangerous. And they are certainly not the kind of  threat that warrants a three month crusade from the New York Times.

This does not mean that cell phones are not distracting and potentially dangerous. They are. But as a 2006 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute suggests, they are no more dangerous than many other distractions, like passengers, grooming, and eating. Perhaps we should ban carpooling instead. After all, it could save more lives than banning cell phones.

Is it time to ban carpooling?

Carpools Only

Is carpooling a threat to your family?

It took the police almost an hour to arrive at the scene of the accident. The dark red Saturn with its crumpled front end and my 2001 VW GTI with its smashed side panels and broken rear axle had already been cleared from the road. Shattered glass and the remnants of my passenger-side mirror still littered the street.

Fortunately, the only injuries where some bumps and bruises, but it could have been much worse.

Like most Americans, I knew I was a better-than-average driver. Up until that point in 2006, I had driven tens of thousands of miles in the five years since I got my license—eating, texting and talking on the phone much of the way. I thought nothing could distract me from the road. That is, until one night when a friend and I decided to carpool.

I was deep in conversation and did not see the Saturn pulling out of the parking lot on my right. By the time I glanced at the road it was too late. Though I swerved, I could not avoid the car and was T-boned in the left-hand turn lane. Was the accident my fault? Not entirely. Could I have avoided it had I not been distracted? Almost certainly.

It is not news to anyone that distractions are a leading cause of car accidents. It’s hardly been challenged that the recent New York Times-led hysteria about the need to ban the use of cell phones constitutes an urgent public issue, but there’s an even more menacing threat to the public good that you don’t know about—and it’s lurking in the carpool lane.

According to a 2006 study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, having a passenger in the car can be just as dangerous as talking on the phone. And the study found that drivers spend a lot more time talking to passengers than they do talking on their phones. The dangers presented by driving with passengers—or carpooling—are well known. According to Robert Wilson of the National Safety Council, limiting the number of passengers is critical to safety, particularly for young drivers. “One passenger…increases the risk. Two, you know, triples the risk. Three or more passengers is a party.”

In an effort to eliminate the added risk of carpooling, 41 states have restrictions on the number of passengers teen drivers can have in the car. But the risks of carpooling do not disappear with age.

However, our laws do not seem to recognize that. Despite the fact that risk of accidents increases with each additional passenger in the car, many states and municipalities not only fail to regulate carpooling but actively encourage it through separate high-occupancy vehicle lanes and other initiatives. What does this mean? Are we trading lives to ease congestion? Was Driving Miss Daisy really that dangerous? Should the paper of record crusade against giving your neighbor a lift to work?

These, of course, are pressing questions for us all.

The truth is, despite the proliferation of cell phones and rampant carpooling, driving in America has never been safer. But if banning the use of cell phones in cars is suddenly a top priority, surely we should take steps to curtail the equally, if not more, dangerous practice of carpooling as well.

After all, banning carpooling will not only eliminate the risk of distraction, but the increased congestion that would likely result would lower average vehicle speeds thus rendering any accidents that did occur less likely to be fatal.

I feel confident that the New York Times will soon call for a carpooling ban and that our legislative leaders will quickly respond. In the meantime, I am banishing all passengers from my car. If you need to reach me while I’m driving, you can get me on my cell phone.

(Hat tip: Kevin)

The war on driving

Multi-Tasking and DrivingAn American’s car is his castle, and that castle is under siege.

The assault on American motoring practices began last Saturday when The New York Times published its lede story on the dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone.  The Times continued the theme Monday, citing recently released study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that claimed drivers distracted by their cell phones caused 955 fatalities in 2002—still far short of the 100,000 people killed by doctors every year—but still nothing to sneeze at. Pointedly, the study concluded that there was little to no safety improvement between drivers talking with a handset and those using a hands-free device.

This set off  another round of calls to ban the use of cell phones while driving. Most of these people, mind you, don’t want to simply ensure both hands are on the wheel by requiring hands-free sets, they want to ban talking on the phone all together.

But as this blog has pointed out before, an American’s car is not only a machine designed to get from point A to point B, but also a personal sanctuary for eating, drinking, enjoying top-notch entertainment systems and yes, talking on cell phones. In short, an American’s car is his home away from home. And if we are going to start regulating when people can and cannot talk in their cars, we better have a good reason to do it.

But we don’t have a good reason to do it.

Whether it is closing a business deal, arranging to meet someone, reporting a drunk driver or simply ordering a pizza, the ability to talk on the phone while driving is a huge benefit to society as a whole. And despite the rapid proliferation of cell phones—and more distracting smart phones—over the past few years, America’s roads today are the safest they have been in decades.

Is talking on a cell phone while driving dangerous? Sure. But so is fiddling with the climate controls, listening to the radio or driving faster than 10 MPH. We could almost eliminate road fatalities entirely—saving 40,000 lives a year— if we simply prohibited the production of cars that could travel at speeds greater than a brisk walk. But that would not be reasonable.

Neither is banning cell phones while driving.

It is time to lift the siege on American drivers and go back to the good old days of last week, when we were all free to do as we pleased in our cars.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#2. Drive-Thrus

#3. Cup Holders

#9. Automatic Transmissions

#16. Cheap gas

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