Cell Phone Hysterics

Today, our Governor of the great state of California, is set to take another step in the direction of pandering in an election year. He is taking time to make a public show of signing into law a ban on the use of cell phones while driving.

I'll certainly be the first to claim that driving while distracted is not a good thing.

However, I wonder where the data is to support the notion that cell phones are a significant source of real distraction and damage on our highways.

It seems like everyone has one, and a lot of people are talking on them a lot. And, especially in public places like waiting rooms and restaurants (let alone theaters or theatres), other people's phones are certainly capable of providing a lot of nuisance noise. But if using a cell phone in a car was really that bad, where are the dead bodies?  Or at least where is all the crumpled steel?

The Cato Institute back in May of 2001 described a study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center that analyzed over 32,000 traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. They looked at the sources of the distraction that appeared to have caused the accidents. Their list of causes is intriguing. The number one factor seems to have been "outside objects, persons, or events" at 29.4%, and "using or dialing on a cell phone" fell at second to last at 1.5% of surveyed accidents.

That puts the cell phone ahead only of fiddling with a cigarette, but well behind the CD and radio, other people in the car, loose objects, adjusting the A/C, and eating.

The Cato article also raises questions about the practicality of enforcing a ban in general terms. I haven't read the bill, so I don't know if it makes just holding your hand to your head a valid reason for a traffic stop...

The bill does permit headsets (whether wired or wireless), but the promoters have promised to come back for more legislation to ban headsets too. But before they get around to that I suppose some future model that fits the entire phone into a wearable object the size of a current bluetooth headset would become a source of revenue for lawyers as it is argued what really constitues a "headset".

It just isn't practical to legislate that people not be idiots, and distracting law enforcement with anti-idiocy laws takes them away from investigating real crimes.

1 comment:

rdv said...

I like the last paragraph :-).

Any study about cell phones that dates to 2001 is outdated. The percentage of people who have them has gone up considerably, and the amount of time people spend on them has also gone up. So, you're right: if they're a significant threat, it should be visible in the traffic stats alone. If there's no statistically significant increae in accidents over the last five years or so, then why bother with a law?

Somewhere during this debate I saw a reference to a study that said that the single biggest accident-causing source of distraction is small children. But you don't see lawmakers rushing to ban small children in the back seat...