When the woman in the Toyota Highlander drifted into my lane this morning, she apparently inhabited a Japanese-designed Cartesian monad, with her cell phone as the only source of sensory input. According to some recent research using a driving simulator, cell phone users are about as impaired as drivers with 0.08% blood alcohol levels. Some studies have reached similar conclusions. The literature has convinced state legislatures to restrict or regulate cell phone use while driving. Much as I would like to agree with the findings, I can’t do it. It seems far-fetched to me, judging by the number of people I see using cell phones while driving, that they constitute a hazard equal to an equivalent number of drunk drivers. The legislation is unwarranted.
My first wireless phone was about the size and weight of a paving stone and came in a handsome leatherette bag with a handle and a zipper, and was therefor called a “bag phone.” Too large to fit in a briefcase, you were obliged to unplug it, take down the antenna, and carry it into the office with you. Roaming charges applied pretty much anywhere outside the phone company’s parking lot. I hated it, rarely used it, and only had it at the insistence of my employer. This was sometime in the late 1980’s, and wireless phones were deservedly uncommon. Over the next few years, they shrank enough to be called “car phones,” but were still too large to use outside the car. They continued to get smaller, and by the time “The Matrix” was filmed in 1999, Keanu Reeves was able to grab a pedestrian’s phone. This model was only about the size and shape of a television remote, although it was without doubt much heavier. It probably came with a clip-on belt pouch. They have now become so small, so cheap, and with so many capabilities that an absolute majority of Americans now has one. Carnage on the highways? No.
In the real world, cell phone usage has increased rapidly over the years to where about 175 million Americans have them. One would expect to see a corresponding increase in automobile accidents attributable to this change in behavior. Instead, automobile accidents have slowly declined over time. Fatalities from alcohol-related crashes have made up between 40% and 43% of the total automobile fatalities (not crashes) since the mid-1990’s and appear to be roughly flat.
An older study, using reports of reported contributing factors to automobile accidents, shows that cell phone use is 1/4 as dangerous as drunk driving. At least one study placed cell phone use in the context of other driver distractions. This seems reasonable to me. I suppose using a cell phone is less distracting than swatting a wasp or dropping your coffee, but it happens far more often. The woman in the Toyota, annoying as she is, is probably about as dangerous munching her bran muffin as she is talking on her cell phone.
Inattentive drivers using cell phones are just one more thing to look out for on the road. Add it to the list – along with vehicles moving much faster or slower than the traffic, tailgaters, short-haul class 3 trucks, and BMWs.