Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hands-free cell phones and fact-free science

I love the way that Nanny State legislation works.

Here's the story from AOL Auto about the increasing number of states enacting "hands-free only" cell phone laws for drivers:

Law enforcement officials in six states can now give you a ticket for talking on your cell phone while driving, so that hands-free device you should be using for your cell phone is going to become your best friend. If you don't have one then you should ask yourself why and get to the store to buy one. Some important information on why and what to look for is below. The reason you may need to start wearing that dorky Bluetooth-integrated ear piece is actually quite startling and sobering. Distracted drivers cause 80 percent of all road accidents, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. In fact, a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California shows hands-free laws have the potential of saving 300 lives in California each year and perhaps thousands if similar laws were enacted in all states.

"I wouldn't be surprised if more states enact laws much like California's new law," said Elliot Darvick , Celebrity Car Parade editor for, whose recent survey results show 70 percent of people agree that driving and cell phones don't mix. However, only 23 percent of respondents say they refrain from talking or texting when driving.

To date, six states have enacted statewide hands-free laws and 20 states have active hands-free law legislation on the books.

"I certainly don't want to see people on the road texting or talking," Darvick said. "I'd rather they have their hands on the wheel."

Now this sounds all well and good: distracted drivers cause accidents and "hands free" save lives, right?

Until you actually go look at the studies....

The Insurance Information Institute is an industry lobbying group that has every interest in having hands-free laws passed. Why? Because if you can be cited for that and later you get in an accident, chances are your insurance company can find a loophole to bail on you. Point being: the III is interested in citing research that backs up hands-free laws, so you can consider them a hostile witness.

So let's look at what they say.

That Public Policy Institute of California survey predicted that 300 lives could be saved, but "researchers concluded that the ban will reduce traffic deaths by about 300 a year, but only in adverse conditions, such as on wet or icy roads."

Oops, that's just a tad different than what the AOL article says, isn't it?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study in 2007 found that hand-held cell phone usage while driving is decreasing in statistically significant terms, even in places that don't have hands-free laws. Imagine that.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance conducted a dangerous driver survey that found that 73% of people talk on their cell phones while driving, but did not correlate this with any increased chance of accidents.

Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) conducted a study of teen drivers that found teens reporting cell phones as their number-one distraction, but again did not report any causal or correlational data to accidents.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Australia did report a correlation between cell-phone use and accidents, one of the few studies to actually do so. But it's embarrassing for a different reason: "The results, published in July 2005, suggest that banning hand-held phone use will not necessarily improve safety if drivers simply switch to hand-free phones. The study found that injury crash risk didn't vary with type of phone."

Oops, changing over to hands-free doesn't make you safer? Wonder why AOL Auto didn't talk about that one?

In fact, almost as an afterthought, III reports that multiple studies have challenged the idea that hands-free cell phones are any safer than hand-held.

The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) focused on driver distraction before accidents, discovering that "the most common distraction is the use of cellphones, followed by drowsiness," but also that " cellphone use is far less likely to be the cause of a crash or near-miss than other distractions, according to the study. For example, while reaching for a moving object such as a falling cup increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by nine times, talking or listening on a hand-held cellphone only increased the risk by 1.3 times.".

Funny, badly designed cup-holders come in almost every car I've ever owned, but even New Jersey doesn't plan (that I know of) to ban Big Gulping While Driving.

This is followed on the site by this: "These findings confirm an August 2003 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that concluded that drivers are far less distracted by their cellphones than by other common activities, such as reaching for items on the seat or glove compartment or talking to passengers."

The question would be, then, where's all the data that (a) hand-held cell-phone usage is so dangerous, and that (b) hands-free cell-phone usage is any safer?

Oh. It's not there. Right.

I'm sure everybody has both (a) an opinion on the necessity for such laws, and (b) at least one anecdote regarding stupid drivers texting while driving. Or shaving while driving. Or reading the newspaper. Or putting on make-up. Or getting blow jobs.

There's a law in virtually every State right now that covers this: it's called inattentive driving.

So here's the deal: go ahead and push for all the Nanny State laws you want, but please don't try to make the case that you're basing public policy on science.

Because I hate it when you lie to me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for finding this. Its connection with the insurance industry is worth noting....