Thursday, June 21, 2007

Banning Dangerous Driving

The other day I had occasion to engage in a discussion with a fairly large group of people regarding cell phone usage while driving.

The event began with a moderator making the following statement: “We should implement laws that prohibit cell phone usage while driving.” We were then asked to physically move to locations in the room designated as strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. The moderator explained before the issue was presented that there would be no neutral position offered. Each participant was required to take one of the four positions offered.

Once we were in four groups, each group was tasked with discussing among themselves why they had that particular opinion. Each group then chose a spokesperson and each spokesperson was given an opportunity to briefly state the group’s thinking. People were then given an opportunity to move between groups and the floor was opened for anyone to speak as recognized by the moderator. The moderator exhibited no bias whatsoever and did an effective job of drawing out opinions.

After the statement was initially read, I moved to the position that started out being the least popular position. Only three of us stood in that lonely spot on the floor. The three of us discussed the issue and I ended up being selected as spokesperson. After each spokesperson spoke, our group’s numbers swelled substantially as people moved around. In the end the four groups were very nearly equally distributed.

The major drawback to the exercise was that no opportunity was given to do research. Only the knowledge people brought into the discussion was brought to bear. No resources were available to validate the claims made, so it was difficult to refute claims that may have been inaccurate. This format led to some emotionally charged moments that tended to distort clear thinking. Still, it was a valuable exercise.

As cell phone usage has proliferated over the past decade, so have numbers of drivers using cell phones. I imagine that just about everyone that drives has seen at least one instance of someone driving poorly while yakking on a cell phone.

One of the first comments made in the exercise in which I was involved was the oft-repeated claim that drivers using cell phones are as dangerous as drunk drivers. This claim is actually based on a very small 1997 Canadian study that failed to control for any other factors involved in the incidents studied. (The NHTSA recently published a 2005 study that makes the same claims, but the link to the study is broken and the study has been criticized for the same defects as the old Canadian study. The bad-as-drunk-driving claim in this study also is only made for teenage drivers.) A much more comprehensive University of North Carolina study (the link to the actual study is also broken right now — what’s up with that?) found that “cell-phone use was responsible for only 1.5 percent of distracted driving accidents.”

This study and other studies found that merely chatting with another occupant in the vehicle is often more distracting than chatting on a phone. One of the greatest distracted driving risks, in fact, is having people under 18 in the vehicle. Eating, drinking, or smoking while driving is far more dangerous than talking on a cell phone. Some studies have found that adjusting the stereo is at least as dangerous as talking on a cell phone. Even having an insect fly into your car is significantly more dangerous than talking on a cell phone.

Despite the relatively higher danger posed by these activities, nobody is talking about banning drivers from interacting with children or other vehicle occupants, or from eating food, drinking soft drinks or water, or touching stereos while driving. Nobody is talking about requiring that vehicle windows remain closed so that bugs can’t fly into vehicles. Some have proposed banning smoking in vehicles, but only because the smoke poses a health risk to other occupants of the vehicle.

It has been very popular to restrict drivers from using hand-held cell phones, but the communities that have done this have not seen any appreciable decrease in distracted driving. Some studies have found that the mind and the mouth are more important than the hand when it comes to distracted driving. Other studies have found that some folks are great at multitasking while driving, while others are not.

We don’t talk about banning behavior that is as dangerous as or more dangerous than hand-held cell phone usage. But we often talk about banning cell phone usage by drivers, or at least banning hand-held cell phone usage by drivers. Why? Mainly because it’s easy to spot.

When we see somebody driving badly that is talking on a cell phone, we immediately ascribe the poor driving to the phone conversation. And being a highly visible activity also makes it easier to enforce. It’s very difficult to enforce use of hands-free cell phones (which turns out to be just as dangerous as using a hand-held phone) because you can’t tell whether the person is talking on the phone, talking to someone in the vehicle, singing with the radio, or talking out loud back to some radio talk show host.

Many twisted statistics are constantly chucked into this debate. If you follow the discussions about this issue in states and municipalities across the nation, you quickly find that much of what is going on is fuelled by emotionalism rather than rational thought. Seemingly lost in some of these debates is the fact that the localities that have proscribed cell phone usage by drivers are not safer today than they were before implementing their bans.

If you have read to this point, it will probably be no surprise to you that I stood in the ‘strongly disagree’ group during the exercise I mentioned. The statement read by the moderator was a proposal to severely limit a human freedom that turns out to be not nearly as dangerous as many activities we consider to be just fine. Such a ban might make us feel good, but does not ultimately make us any safer on the roads.

Rather than target a specific freedom, we should enforce current laws that prohibit distracted driving and reckless driving. Like so many other issues, we don’t need more laws; we simply need to enforce the laws that we have. Police can then ignore people that drive safely while talking on their cell phones and target people that are actually being traffic hazards, regardless of the reason for their recklessness. This mundane course of action may not make us feel as good, but it is designed to actually make the roads safer for us.


Anonymous said...

Good analysis. I agree with your conclusion, as well. The real problem, as I see it, is that drivers are driving faster, driving more aggressively, breaking more traffic laws and law enforcement is reluctant to enforce existing laws. A co-worker who is married to a SL Sheriff Deputy says it's because the more citations they write, the more time they spend in court and they (cops) are disgusted by the lenient sentences handed out by judges so why bother? I don't condone that attitude, BTW, I'm just reporting it.

I would like to see a zero-tolerance policy enacted regarding traffic infractions. It will take something draconian like that to shake up Utah drivers enough so that they stop driving dangerously (and stupidly). No more optional enforcement of mandatory requirements like signalling lane changes and turns, red lights, coming to a full stop before turning right on red, etc.

Scott Hinrichs said...

It's not just Utah drivers. The trends you cite are nationwide trends.

We can certainly work through our elected officials to seek to change enforcement habits. As an individual, I can also work to ensure that my driving habits promote road safety.