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Driving While Distracted

Ray LaHood, government guy, targets our ­cell phones.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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It’s a big step, telling people that they can’t hold a cell phone in their car, but the fuzzy phrase “distracted driving” makes it look smaller, more reasonable, and much less intrusive than it is. Department of Transportation literature defines distracted driving as “any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing.” Elsewhere the department offers a partial list of those dangerous nondriving activities in addition to holding a cell phone: “eating, drinking, conversing with passengers, interaction with in-vehicle technologies [I think this means changing the radio station], daydreaming, or dealing with strong emotions,” along with other activities unspecified.

Quite a list! But LaHood doesn’t mention it when he appears at events designed to “raise awareness” about the dangers of handheld cell phone use. At a typical event last month he announced that “nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver,” with the implication that a cell phone driving ban would halt the butchery—
I mean epidemic. 

The real-world situation, you won’t be surprised to learn, is more complicated. The precise number of these fatalities in 2008 was 5,870. According to the official tables, they occurred in “police-reported crashes in which at least one form of distracted driving was reported on the crash report.” The fatality statistic doesn’t tell us anything about cell phone use because it doesn’t mention cell phone use. It doesn’t even tell us whether “distracted driving,” in any of its dozen or more manifestations, was the cause of the fatal crash. An Alzheimer’s sufferer who got hit by a dump truck while driving through an oil slick and taking blows from his angry wife with the family dog perched on his shoulder sticking its disgusting tongue in his ear would become, in LaHood’s statistical accounting, another piece of evidence for a ban on cell phone driving. 

So what do we know about the safety of using cell phones in cars? Aside from the intuitive understanding that we all share—that anyone who can’t wait till he’s done driving to talk on his cell phone is a jackass—we don’t know a lot for certain. The number of fatal crashes “involving distraction” has increased in the last four years; but the overall number of such crashes has declined. Nationwide, car crashes have fallen dramatically while the use of cell phones has jumped dramatically (from 195 billion minutes in June 2000 to 1.1 trillion in June 2008). Last month the Highway Loss Data Institute issued a report comparing collision rates for states before and after they passed bans on drivers using handheld cell phones. The bans showed no effect on the number, frequency, or severity of collisions.

LaHood’s reaction to this latest report showed why he’s the government guy. It should have been a devastating blow; the institute’s evidence severely undercuts the logic of his initiative. Instead he took to his blog—yes, even Ray LaHood has a blog—and summarily declared that the new study provided still more evidence that government action was urgently needed.

“The surprising data,” he wrote, “encourages people to wrongly conclude that talking on cell phones while driving is not dangerous! Nothing could be further from the truth. Just ask Jennifer Smith  .  .  .  ” Smith, of course, is another grieving mother. He went on to equate cell phone driving with drunk driving. “If anything, the study suggests we need even tougher protections.”

How so? LaHood had an explanation for why the state bans had not reduced collisions. In states that banned handheld cell phone use, he said, drivers probably began using hands-free cell phones. And “research tells us hands-free is just as dangerous as handheld.” 

Thus the call to action escalates, and the needed prohibitions grow more comprehensive. A ban on handheld cell phone use will be insufficient if we are to cure the epidemic. Only a total ban on drivers’ use of cell phones, handheld and hands-free, will bring progress. 

LaHood didn’t go further, at least for the moment. He might have mentioned that “research” also tells us that talking on a cell phone, hands free or handheld, is just as “dangerous” as having a spirited conversation with a passenger, which can be just as dangerous as drunk driving .  .  . and so on through the official list of distractions: eating, drinking, daydreaming. .  .  

We are, in other words, going to need a very big ban, and Ray LaHood is just the guy to give it to us. “Studies of cognitive distraction,” he wrote on his blog, “tell us that it’s not about where your hands are, but where your head is.” It is a dream almost too big even for the most ambitious government guy: a National Initiative for Head Relocation.

 Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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