Thursday, February 4, 2010

Regulatory FAIL: cel phone bans don't work.

A study of states where talking on handheld cel phones is illegal shows absolutely no reduction in car accidents.

The organization found that claims rates did not go down after the laws were enacted. It also found no change in patterns compared with nearby states without such bans.

Adrian Lund, the group's president, said the finding doesn't bode well "for any safety payoff from all the new laws."

Now, caveat: only six states, at present, ban handheld cel phones, so MAYBE the sample size is too small. Two of those states are California and New York, though- between them slightly less than one-fifth of the entire population of the United States- so I doubt it.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this?

(1) The law is unenforceable. Cel phones are just too ubiquitous in our society, and being able to talk on the road too useful for people to give up. It's just like speed limits on freeways; there aren't enough cops for strict enforcement, so they have to settle for targeting Mr. 100-MPH and leaving a hundred people driving 75 alone. In the case of cel phones, it means ticketing people after the fact- after an accident has already happened, or after they've been pulled over for some other violation (drunk/erratic driving, speeding, etc.).

(2) Cel-caused risks are overhyped. All the studies about the risks of driving while on the phone stem from laboratory conditions- where test subjects are deliberately put in high-risk driving environments where full attention is needed on the road, told to drive much faster than they're comfortable driving in such conditions, and then told, "Now talk on your phone while doing all this." This is like force-feeding a mouse a five-pound bag of sugar to prove that sugar causes cancer; you'll get the desired result, but it bears no resemblance whatever to reality. In reality, most people in a hazardous driving environment would DROP THE DAMN PHONE.

(3) The benefits of hands-free phones over handheld phones are overhyped. Those studies I just complained about all say the same thing: it is the act of conversation, not of having a phone in one hand, that causes the additional risk. Talking on a hands-free device is absolutely no safer than talking on a handheld cel phone- and neither is more risky than holding a conversation with a passenger in the car with you. Despite this, no ban on hands-free devices is seriously being contemplated- because nobody (except the National Safety Council, which has no vote in Congress or state legislatures) wants to give up entirely on mobile phones.

As you can guess, I believe all three of these possible explanations are valid, and you may take any of the three you like for yourself. Ray LaHood, our current Secretary of Transportation, has a different explanation- the typical explanation of Republicans when confronted with uncomfortable facts:

(4) The study is bunk.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also has been campaigning against texting and cell phone use while driving. In a blog post Friday, LaHood dismissed the new study's conclusions as irresponsible and said the study will lead people "to wrongly conclude that talking on cell phones while driving is not dangerous."

"At this early stage in our work against distracted driving, no one should be discouraging strong nationwide efforts to make our roadways safer," LaHood wrote. "Unfortunately, a study released by the Highway Loss Data Institute casts doubt on the reality of this epidemic."

Bear in mind that LaHood would also like to see radios removed from cars and drive-through restaurants abolished.

For myself, I suspect the study is spot-on. The law can't be enforced regularly or evenly; the studies supporting it do not conform with real driving conditions; and there is no political will to actually go after the core cause of the distraction, which is conversation in any form. With these conditions unresolved, it's no wonder that banning handheld cel phones while driving hasn't done anything to reduce accidents.

Banning handhelds may make your constituents feel better, and might help your re-election campaign... but as highway safety, the first evidence says it's just another useless law.

And useless laws should either be fixed... or repealed.

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