Celling Out

I wanted to comment on Mitch’s Over Celling post, specifically Jonathan’s last comment, but the comment mushroomed, so I’ll turn it into a post. There is a very interesting report from the NHTSA and a group of VA Tech academics that put cameras in cars, recording the behavior (and consequences of that behavior) of 241 drivers over the course of a year. The consequences were grouped into the categories crashes, near-crashes, and “incidents” They take quite a bit of space to define “incident”, so if you’re interested, go take a gander at the report itself. If you look at this data, especially Figure 11-9 on page 293, I think the conclusion is pretty inescapable that cell phones are a major contributing factor to vehicle accidents.

However, I come away from this report agreeing with Mitch that banning cell phone use while driving is not really helpful. The reason is that this data is very poorly presented, giving me the feeling that the NHTSA is skewing the presentation because the political bosses wish to further the cause of banning cell phones. Upon reading the report, I come away with a striking impression. If we just look at the chart on the top of page 29, depicting the number of incidents, the bottom two cells in the table provide a staggering total. Because the data is presented poorly, I’m going to have to make some assumptions, and I’ll be conservative. The bottom two boxes are labeled 151-200 incidents (over the year) and 200+ incidents. Let’s say that the 29 drivers in the 151-200 incident box all fell in the 151 incident category. That makes for 4379 incidents. If the 9 drivers in the 200+ incident category all fell in at 201 incidents, that would make their total 1809. I’m sure the averages were higher than that, but the minimum total number of incidents from this batch of 38 morons alone was 6188, out of 8295 for all 241 drivers. That is a whopping 74.6% of the incidents caused by 15.8% of the drivers. (pretty close to the 80/20 rule) That’s at the minimum – I have a feeling that the bozo brigade we’re talking about here accounts for much more than three quarters of the incidents, because the mean number of incidents in each box is likely to be a lot closer to the median than I’ve assumed here.

It is a huge deficiency of this report that those segments are not identified, quantified and addressed in detail. In addition, the cross-correlation between the number of incidents and number of near-crashes and crashes is not addressed. In other words, do some drivers have a lot of minor incidents that just make the cut, but don’t really do anything totally insane, while others do insane stuff once in a while – often enough to rack up multiple crashes and near-crashes, but not often enough provide huge incident totals? (An example might be people who drive OK on their own time, but are chronically late for work, making them insane on the morning commute.) Those statistics need to be published. But by so doing, the NHTSA would put the blame on people, specifically about 15% of drivers who are incurable idiots, and shove technological factors down on the list of things to deal with to improve traffic safety. It’s easy to ban cell phones and then measure ticket rates, it’s a lot harder in our legal climate to find the morons, tell them unequivocally that they are morons, and then revoke their driving privileges. The bureaucrats in the NHTSA are happy to make more rules that they can be measured (favorably) against, but less happy to tell the constituents of their political bosses that they don’t have enough brains in their head to successfully pilot an automobile on the roadways with the rest of us.

The authors do make a big deal out of 4 drivers who happened to be in the worst 95th percentile in two out of the three measures. They summarize their statistics on page 30. That’s great, as far as it goes, those 4 people account for 790 incidents, or 9.5% of the total. Taking those four people off of the road would be a service to humanity. But the report ignores the other bozos. Turning an “incident” into a crash or near-crash is in some sense a matter of luck – the physical conditions of the road, and the alertness and skill of the other driver involved. With those four people you can see a direct relationship between incidents and near crashes – the more incidents, the more near crashes, although the relationship is not linear because of the small numbers we are dealing with, here. The relationship is not as clear with crashes because of the even smaller numbers. However, my point stands – the more risky situations caused by a driver’s behavior, the higher the probability of a crash.

Those who are in the 90th percentile or higher for incidents are all menaces in my book. You’ve all seen them. Recently I watched a car roll through a stop sign without stopping, cutting me off in the process (my road did not have a stop sign). This driver proceeded to the next intersection, turned left without braking or signaling, and in so doing cut off a car coming in the other direction. Four moving violations and two “incidents” in less than a quarter mile and less than 5 minutes. That right there is one of your “outliers”, and a cellphone was not even involved, as far as I could see.

Banning cell phone use in cars looks a lot like gun control to me. Ban legitimate possession and incidents will go down somewhat, but only somewhat, because scofflaws will just ignore the law, and people will find other weapons with which to kill one another. Car accident rates did not shoot up after the widespread use of cellphones – the phones are just the current distraction of choice for these morons – they were bad drivers before cells became widespread, and they’ll continue to be bad drivers if cells are banned. Even if we banned just this segment from using phones, the next three causes of driver inattention in the survey accounted for more incidents than cell phones, although cell phones were far and away the leading cause of inattention that led to incidents.

Let’s leave aside the fact that these horrible drivers will probably use cell phones illegally. They have poor driving habits from the git-go, and they’ll run into someone while distracted by eating a cheeseburger if their cells are banned. Finding these drivers and revoking their licenses would do more for traffic safety than a ban on telephones, eating, fiddling with the radio, and carrying children in the car (the top distractions in the NHSTA report) combined. I like my legal system to take the approach of good parents everywhere: “make as few rules as possible, and don’t take no for an answer”. When I was in college, there was an engineering frat that had been busted for drugs back in the 70s. As part of the deal to remain certified by my school, some 15 years later that frat still had a cap on the number of yearly pledge offers so that the total house size stayed below a certain number of members. That’s what I’m talking about. Find these people, revoke their licenses, and don’t give them back. Don’t take no for an answer, don’t take “but I’ve got to get to work” for an excuse. That would make the time I’m forced to spend on I-95, I-81, and I-76 a lot more bearable.

The problem is finding these people. That issue is really highlighted by the four outliers singled out in the VA Tech report. Some people get lucky and leave behind a trail of incidents and near-crashes without having a crash recorded that would alert the authorities to the incompetence. Take a look at the table on page 30. Driver number 204 had equipment problems that resulted in a low number of miles (2603) recorded for the year, yet still managed to rack up 60 incidents and one crash in those few miles, but driver 308 truly seemed to have been lucky, getting only one crash out of 171 incidents and 19 near-crashes. No one can be lucky forever, though, and I bet we’d see a crash or two the next year for driver 308, whereas a good driver who got unlucky in the study year would show none the next year.

Given my libertarian leanings, I’d like to see a private solution to the problem. If insurance companies were to look at people with high crash rates over time (say, one per year for 3 years, or more than 2 in any given year), and force those people to install this device for one year, the insurer could monitor for behavior like that demonstrated by our four friends on page 30. I’d bet the VA Tech people would be happy to subcontract this work to pay for their research. The behavior over the monitoring period could then be reflected in the driver’s insurance rates, with rates for the four members of the pinhead platoon up there being somewhere in the range of $20,000 per year.

We need to get a handle on this before the boomers get much older, because this problem will get worse with time. The number of elderly drivers is going to mushroom over the next decade, and the problems caused by people sporting Florida plates in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states are pretty obvious every time I hit the interstate. Skills only deteriorate with age. It’s interesting, and quite frightening, to note that none of the four worst drivers in the NHSTA report was over 44. God help those of us on the road when they turn 65.*

* I realize that some of the problem with younger males is often reckless driving that tends to calm down with age, but the report shows that inattention is a much greater threat than recklessness, and that only gets worse with age.

10 thoughts on “Celling Out”

  1. I really hate cell phones, so this cannot be attributed to confirmation bias. If there is no clear, urgent, and demonstrable danger to the public, then what business does the state have in meddling in it? Solving a problem that is more folklore than reality?

  2. Thanks, this is a great post. I think that the comparison between irresponsible use of automobiles and guns catches the essence of the issue. Your inference that some of the people making the anti-cellphone case are, for ideological and political reasons, fudging the importance of individual differences in driving ability also makes perfect sense.

  3. I pretty much agree with Jay’s assessment, but would argue that the structure of many cities assumes 99% of the people drive. If his theories were enacted, we might also see a rise in neighborhood stores & more pedestrian-friendly environments. Then, the people without cars would not just be people with small megaphones & pocketbooks in the public square.

    Cell phones actually may help a certain kind of bad driver. Our family has little sense of terrain and all of us (my husband to a lesser degree) spend a lot of time just wandering around trying to figure out where the hell we are. Cell phones have been useful in phoning someone who actually knows where we are and where we want to be and can give directions. My daughters’ accidents have usually come from some confusion about where they are in a general sense and lack of concentration on where they are in a specific one.

    On the other hand, I suspect we would be the idiots John Jay wants off the road. I got a citation (no seat belt) just this week.
    Knowing my inabilities, I didn’t start driving until I was about forty. But, our lives would be difficult to live in this town which is designed like a suburb – certainly to raise children. (Without children I easily bicycled our groceries in, bicycled or walked to work even a few miles away – I also started gaining weight when I started driving.)

  4. Also, Ginny, you might want to think about getting a GPS. I haven’t used an automotive GPS in the US, but I had one on a rental car in France several years ago and it was great! It gave turn-by-turn directions by voice, and was right just about all the time (the exception being road work and a detour it couldn’t have known about.) I don’t know if equivalent excellence is available in the US (probably largely a function of the conversion of road map data to electronic form) but would guess it is by now.

    Of course, the road signs in France are better, too–most U.S. signs seem designed under the assumption that there is a shortage of paint.

  5. If you ban the 90th, or 95th, or whatever, percentile of bad drivers, won’t there still be a 90th percentile of the remaining drivers? At what point do we stop and recognize that SOMEBODY is going to be the worst driver around?

    Better to ask what it is about cell phone use that distracts. Is it the speech? If so, you’ve got serious 1st amendment issues to address. The dialing? The holding it up to your ear? That’s what I’m guessing, and if so, the technological solution is voice dialing and speaker phone modes.

    Since basicly all cell phones are going to have voice dialing within a few years, it really just boils down to seeing to it that the phones are used as speaker phones while a car is in motion. Something which is definately ameniable to technological solution.

  6. Ginny – knowing what you do, before you go on a trip to an unknown destination, you need to prinout out some detailed blow-up maps from mapquest, and go over your route in detail. Get some matchbox cars and run them along the map if you’re like my wife and can’t visualize stuff like that well (for the life of me I can’t understand why, she passed a graduate course in group theory just fine, and that requires spatial visualization skills out the wazoo). An advanced driving / navigation course, or some time spent in the sport of orienteering might help, too. You and your daughters owe that to the other drivers on the road, if those accidents occur more than once evry other year or so.

    One thing that strikes me about a lot of the poor drivers in the North East is that they tend to be city dwellers who drive very infrequently. The lack of practice shows. Look at driver # 308 – only about 5000 miles for the year (less than 1/2 the national average), and all those near-crashes. She’s a menace, but she might improve with some practice and some instruction. I think that you waiting until 40 to drive was a huge mistake. You form good habits, and pick up on cues from other drivers via observation, better when young. Even if you have difficulty acquiring them, skills and experience acquired at a young age tend to save you when some nut in front of you spins out, even as your reflexes slow. I’m 37, and I can feel that I’m not as good as I once was. But my dad was a pilot, and he beat safe operating skills into my head, so I started from what I consider to be a very high level of awareness and expectations for my driving conduct.

  7. Brett – point taken about bureaucrats always wanting to go further when regulating. But that is why I proposed a private solution. If the bottom 10% want to drive, go ahead, but do it with insurance rates that are a constant reminder of their lack of prowess. The high rates will focus their attention on the road, and will keep them from being subsidized by my insurance premiums, which I think is what’s happening, now.

    Looking at pages 29 and 30, if the absolute numbers of incidents, near crashes and crashes for that bottom 10% don’t shock you, then I’m shocked. Anyone who has more than 12 near-crashes in a year is a menace! Our friend driver #308 had 19 – one about every 2-3 weeks. (Actually I suspect it’s more frequent than that on a per-driving hour basis, given her low mileage total). I think we can all agree that there should be some minimum standards for competency, and I think that at least 10%, probably 15%, of the drivers fall below those minimum standards.

    My point was that, looking at those drivers and reducing their numbers on the road would do a lot more for traffic safety than a ban on cellphones. I’m not sure the government needs to do anything, it just needs to create a legal environemt where people who are told by their insurance companies to install the cameras for a year as a requirement for insurance, and then have their rates go up astronomically as a result, can not sue for invasion of privacy, discrimination, or some other BS.

  8. Brett…”what it is about cell phone use that distracts. Is it the speech? If so, you’ve got serious 1st amendment issues to address.” I don’t think there’s even a remote approximation to a First Amendment issue here.

    Federal Aviation Regulation 121.542, applicable to scheduled airline operations, is known as the “sterile cockpit rule.” It provides that during critical phases of flight (operations other than cruise conducted below 10000 feet), nonessential conversations among crew members are not permitted.

    I can’t imagine a successful challenge to FAR 121.542 on First Amendment grounds, and I don’t see any relevant difference between regulatory authority over automobiles vs over aviation (other than state vs federal)

  9. “applicable to scheduled airline operations,”

    You might have a point, were we talking about taxi and bus drivers on interstate runs. Though I find the whole “money involved somewhere” exception to the First amendment more than a little dubious, at least the situation would be reasonably analogous.

    In any event, what’s the mechanism? And can we address it directly without significantly reducing human liberty?

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