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.

5 thoughts on “Over-Celling”

  1. Two small add-ons: As more people have and use cell phones, you would think that would decrease the risk of accidents — just as new drivers are more likely to have an accident because they aren’t used to driving yet (among other things). The more society adapts to cell phones, the less of a distraction they are. Although there is the counterargument of studies of its affect on the brain, I’m not knowledgable enough on that point to say much.

    Second, if cell phones are really as dangerous as being at the legal limit for alcohol, but cell phones clearly don’t kill as many people (per capita or otherwise) as drunk drivers, then one could conclude (even if just facetiously) that 0.08 isn’t driving drunk. Not sure we want a “0.08 is great!” campaign, though.

  2. It’s been said before: there are laws on reckless and careless driving already, just use them. More laws we don’t need.

  3. In Connecticut the law now reads : No phones, no coffee, etc… Just drive your car..


    Permnission to gag the co-pilot and kids and throw them in the trunk?!

  4. I don’t know. Some cellphone users are clearly impaired, yet it’s not clear that accident rates are up as a result.

    People are also impaired by other things than cellphones (changing channels on the radio, their kids, eating, conversations with other passengers, etc.). If cellphone use while driving isn’t more of a problem than are other distractions, that should not be interpreted as confirming that cellphone use while driving is benign. It may be, rather, that many kinds of distractions contribute to accidents, and that accident rates would decrease if drivers were encouraged to avoid distractions (including cellphones) generally.

    I don’t know the best way to test this hypothesis. I doubt that snapshot comparisons of different driver populations, or even of the same population across time, will be definitive unless the phoning population has a much higher accident rate. Perhaps it would be better to compare average mileage-adjusted and phone-use-adjusted accident rates for individual drivers before and after they start using cellphones.

  5. “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”
    – Judge Gideon Tucker

    It seems to me legislators live for two reasons: to make themselves rich (which I can understand) and to control the lives of others to the maximum extent possible (which I can’t). It must be an ego thing. Had our current crop of busy-body, I’m restricting your freedom for your own good politicians been in power when the automobile was introduced, it would’ve immediately been banned.

    Full time legislators are the best argument for a part time legislature.

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