Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cell phone ban update

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post railing against the idiocy of cell phone bans in cars (and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's self-described "rampage" against automotive cell phone usage). I wrote then,
Secretary LaHood himself recognized the need for "personal responsibility", which has been in a precipitous decline over the past several decades. You don't create personal responsibility by legislating choices away from the people; quite the opposite, in fact. The more people rely on the government to save them from themselves, the less incentive they will have to make the right choices in the first place (or to deal with any developing problems on their own). Over-reliance on the government has been a key factor behind the disappearance of personal responsibility in America. 
Often, these types of policies and bans are quick-fix responses to avoid taking on more complicated issues. The fact is, distracted drivers existed on the road long before cell phones were prevalent, and they'll exist even if we do ban cell phones in cars entirely. We need to focus on the real problem--irresponsible, unqualified drivers--rather than their symptom, cell phone usage.
I still firmly believe the words that I wrote then—I think the "nanny state" concept is flawed at its core, because it encourages people to outsource responsibility for their actions. That "loss of personal responsibility" dynamic is one that I've more recently discussed in this post and this post, from varying angles. And wouldn't you know it, there's some more recent data that backs up my original hypothesis.
You can take the driver away from the cell phone, but you can't take the risky behavior away from the driver. That's the conclusion of a new study, which finds that people who talk on their phones while driving may already be unsafe drivers who are nearly as prone to crash with or without the device. The findings may explain why laws banning cell phone use in motor vehicles have had little impact on accident rates.
The study involved 108 people, equally divided into three age groups: 20s, 40s, and 60s. For each person, the researchers correlated answers on a questionnaire with data collected from on-board sensors during a 40-minute test drive up Interstate 93 north of Boston...
No cell phones were allowed during these trips. Instead, before they got behind the wheel, the study participants filled in answers about how often they used a cell phone while driving, how they felt about speeding and passing other cars, and how many times in the last year they had been warned or cited for speeding, running traffic lights and stop signs, and other infractions. The team grouped the participants into "frequent users" (those who talked on the phone while driving a few times a week or more) and "rare users" (those who talked while driving a few times a month or less).
Compared with people who rarely talked as they steered, frequent cell phone users drove faster, changed lanes more frequently, spent more time in the left lane, and engaged in more hard braking maneuvers and rapid accelerations, according to the SUV's onboard equipment. Frequent cell phone users, for example, zoomed along about 4.4 kilometers per hour faster on average and changed lanes twice as often, compared with rare users.
"These are not 'oh-my-god' differences," says study leader Bryan Reimer, a human factors engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. "They are subtle clues indicative of more aggressive driving." What's more, he says, other studies have linked these behaviors to an increased rate of crashes. "It's clear [from the scientific literature] that cell phones in and of themselves impair the ability to manage the demands of driving," Reimer says. But "the fundamental problem may be the behavior of the individuals willing to pick up the technology."
Right. The fact of the matter is, if you ban cell phones in cars, there will still be idiots out there who are fiddling with the radio, screwing with their iPad, trying to do their hair (or shave) while driving, or just, you know... speeding and switching lanes all over the place.

Simply put, the people who are most likely to use their phones in their cars ARE ALREADY BAD DRIVERS, so to blame their accidents on their cell phones is basically ludicrous—it's a basic and classic correlation-versus-causation screwup, which we're seeing all over the place these days. We can blame as many accidents as we want on "cell phone use", but the implicit assumption in doing so is that absent a cell phone, the driver in question would have been paying attention and doing everything right. I think that assumption is wrong, and I think that this study helps back up my belief.

As long as we are allowing bad drivers to obtain licenses and continue driving in dangerous fashions, there will be accidents out on the roads. The only thing we should be looking to ban is bad drivers, and I haven't seen any legislation out there that attempts to do that (unless... driverless cars... nahhhhh). If there was, I'd support it in a heartbeat.


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