I’ve seen a lot of unsafe driving in my life, but almost none of it had to do with use of phones. I’ve seen people swerve out of lanes while they were eating, putting on makeup, reading books, looking at maps and even kissing. I’ve seen people obviously distracted because of looking at billboards, road signs, scenery and traffic accidents. We’ve all seen those things. But for some reason, some so-called safety experts have become fixated on banning the use of phones by drivers.
Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board urged all states to make it illegal to use a phone in any way while driving. The NTSB even said the use of earbuds or wireless headsets should be banned. As far as I can tell, nobody has called for a ban on eating while driving, putting on makeup while driving or reading newspapers and maps while driving.
And why is the agency calling for this ban? It says that distracted driving “contributed” to an “estimated” 3,092 deaths last year — and that “some of it” was due to cellphone use. There are a couple of really basic problems with this logic. First, isn’t it interesting that an estimated number is given in such an exact way, giving the illusion of precision? It would be easier to say, “This is what we’re guessing,” but that wouldn’t support their position, so they give you an number to make it appear that the experts know these things.
Second, if we assume that distracted driving has caused some accidents and deaths — which seems reasonable — wouldn’t it be logical to know what portion of those are caused by the one item that you’re proposing to ban for the entire country? Just saying that “some portion of them” are caused by phones isn’t exactly science. They want the vast majority of people to radically change their habits without actual data to back it up.
Talking on the phone while driving can be dangerous at times, but reasonable people can exercise judgement about what’s safe and what’s not — just as they can about eating and drinking coffee and looking at maps and changing radio stations and a hundred other things we do while we’re driving. And if you don’t trust people to make judgements while they drive, the entire current system of roads and cars must be scraped. You can’t have it both ways.
I talk on the phone while I’m driving, but I always use earbuds. I also listen to podcasts and talk to other people in the car. I’ve even been known to unthinkingly reach down and pick something up that’s fallen out of the seat. We’ve all done something at some point that’s potentially dangerous while driving. So why is there a nationwide witch hunt to stop all phone use?
I think it’s simple. When an accident happens, it’s easy to prove that someone was talking on the phone at the time. It’s something you can measure. You can’t tell if someone swerved into another lane because he was reaching for his Slurpie. You can’t tell if a guy was so busy checking out a woman in another car that he hit someone. You can’t tell if a woman on the way to work who rear-ends someone was actually putting on makeup. People aren’t going to admit these things in most cases.
Is it possible for cellphone use to cause an accident? Yes. It’s also possible for a million other things to cause accidents. If we’re going to put people into what are basically guided missiles and let them fly down the highway at breakneck speed at each other, we have to assume that some accidents are going to happen. I don’t like it. I don’t like that a lot of people are going to be reckless. But we had plenty of driving accidents from distracted driving long before cellphones were invented.
Making phone use the big safety issue today isn’t supported by data or by logic. There’s no such thing as a risk-free society, and there’s certainly no such thing as risk-free driving. If we want much safer transportation, it’s going to involve something other than cars — but that’s not what people want.