A story today is saying the United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is pushing for a complete ban on cell phone usage while driving. This includes standard cell phone talking, texting, and the use of hand-free systems. He claims people are distracted by all of these things and it is leading to accidents.
Personally I’m always dubious of what politicians say so I’ve been looking into the matter. It’s pretty universally accepted that cell phone usage has been increasing exponentially for the last decade and a half. I’m not one to just take generally accepted ideas so I started digging for facts. CTIA has been keeping statistics on the number of cellular phone subscribers since 1985 [Waring: PDF]. Since 1985 the number of cell phone subscribers has went from 203,600 (which surprised me there were that many back in ’85) to 276,610,580 in 2009. In roughly two and a half decades we’ve literally went from hundreds of thousands of cell phone subscribers to hundreds of millions. I’d call that an exponential increase.
If Mr. LaHood’s claims are accurate and the ever increasing amount of distraction in automobiles are causing accidents there should be a noticeable increase in the number of accidents since 1985. This is where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) comes into play (I sources them in my last post). In their 2008 report [Waring: PDF] page 14 lists the historical data of crashes by crash severity. The main thing I was concerned about was the total number of automobile accidents per year.
Like I said if cell phone usage has been causing automobile accidents it should be noted on the total number of accidents yearly. The data published by the NHTSA goes from 1988 to 2008 which is what we’ll concern ourselves with. So how much have automobile accidents increased? Here’s the funny thing, they haven’t. In fact the number of accidents has been on a slight downward trend since 1988.
In 1988 the total number of automobile accidents was 6,887,000, in 1990 it was 6,471,000, in 1995 it was 6,699,000, in 2000 it was 6,394,000, in 2005 it was 6,159,000, and finally in 2008 it was 5,811,000. It seems the only correlation that exists between the increase in cell phone subscribers and automobile accidents is a slight downward trend (which I’m absolutely not implying is causality).
Inevitably this is where somebody will point out the reason for the downward trend are laws banning cell phone usages while driving. The problem is that isn’t true. From what I’ve been able to find the first law banning cell phone usage while driving was enacted in New York in 2001. The downward trend in automobile accidents has been going on since the late ’80′s at the very least. If the downward trend was occurring before the first law banning cell phone usage while driving was enacted that indicate a third party reason. In fact a recent study confirms exactly what I’m saying.
Cell phone penetration seems to have no effect on the number of automobile accidents. I would wager that some people are just bad drivers. Cell phones don’t offer these people a distraction where there wasn’t one before, they just offer a different type of distraction. Before the popular use of cell phones how many times did you see somebody driving while applying makeup, brushing their teeth, shaving, reading, or some other such stupidity? Some people just want to be distracted and enacting laws barring the usage of cell phones while driving isn’t going to correct anything.
Please don’t read this and think I’m condoning texting while driving because I’m not. Texting while driving is just stupid and you must remove your eyes from the road. I just don’t think we need another law on the books to ban texting while driving, reckless driving laws already handle the problem. Especially considering the prevalent inclusion of GPS navigation systems on cell phones. What you might view as somebody reading an e-mail to texting could very well just be them reading a map and navigating. If you really want to remove all potential distractions from drivers you will have to ban GPS, radios, gauges (because looking at your heat gauge means you’re not look at the road), and passengers. Basically we all have to drive a single seat car with absolutely no accessories. Of course due to massive boredom we’ll probably have more people falling asleep at the wheel and thus increase the number of accidents.
I’m perfectly OK with the use of hands free system while driving as it’s no different than holding a conversation with your passenger and talking on your phone while driving without a hands-free system is dependent on the person doing it. Once again reckless driving laws already take care of the problem of bad and dangerous drivers.
The bottom line is I wish people would stop blaming cell phone usage for an increase in the number of accidents because there is no increase. Blame bad drivers for being bad drivers.