The Next Page / Texting while driving: not the problem

If all cell phones vanished, would distraction-related car accidents go down? The numbers say 'no.' James Hilston says the problem, and solution, is beyond legislation



I live in Ohio and work in Pittsburgh. On average, I spend about 15 hours a week on the road. I also text while I drive.

In addition, I talk on the phone, sing, eat, drink, monitor the instrument panel and GPS, fiddle with the controls on my car stereo, manipulate and swap out audio-book CDs, switch cables between my iPod and iPhone (I prefer to have both), adjust my mirrors, gaze at the scenery, look at billboards, read road signs and glare at inconsiderate drivers, all while propelling my 3,299-pound-curb-weight SUV at speeds just above the maximum speed limit. I hasten to say, however, that while my penchant for distracted driving may be at its peak when the road is straight and traffic is sparse, my sense of self-preservation -- which includes my desire to avoid jail and not to cause harm to others or their vehicles -- prevails when the road is curvy and/or congested.

Of course, any one of the aforementioned behaviors could cause me to mishandle my vehicle. I will admit to sometimes drifting onto the highway shoulder and experiencing that unnerving vibration of the rumble strip. I've also been that guy who failed to realize that someone has come up quickly behind me in the left lane wanting to pass. To be sure, my distracted driving has caused the occasional annoyance to other drivers, as theirs has caused me. However, many would agree that there's nothing like the annoyance you feel when you see what is causing the other driver's distraction, texting in particular, as shown in the graphic below ("The top 10 most annoying things other drivers do"). It's no wonder, then, that almost everyone jumps on the proverbial anti-texting bandwagon when legislation is proposed to make it illegal. That is, ALMOST everyone; I happen to think it's a bad idea.

I know what you're thinking: As a colleague said to me several months ago, "Are you saying the 30-plus states that have already passed anti-texting laws are wrong?" Yes, that is what I'm saying. The fact is, the statistics do not support the conventional wisdom that has prompted the majority of the country to outlaw texting while driving.


Flirting with disaster

Thirty-eight states have laws that restrict or prohibit the use of cell phones while driving. In March, Pennsylvania enacted a law that makes texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that an officer can pull you over if they see you doing it. It appears Ohio will be next.

On April 26, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called for a nationwide federal ban on talking on a cell phone or texting while driving any type of vehicle on any road in the United States. He called the behavior a "national epidemic," citing 3,000 U.S. fatalities from distracted driving in 2011.

A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study reported that, "of all cell phone-related tasks -- including talking, dialing or reaching for the phone --texting while driving is the most dangerous." It also found that for every 6 seconds of drive time, a driver sending or receiving a text message spends 4.6 of those seconds with their eyes off the road, that a driver dialing a cell phone is 2.8 times more likely to get into a crash than a non-distracted driver, and a truck driver texting while driving is 23.2 times more likely to get into an accident than a non-distracted trucker.

But given the above statistics and "national epidemic" claims, why haven't the numbers of accidents increased with the exploding use of cell phones and text-messaging?


Haters gonna hate

What is it about texting while driving that evokes the most ire from people? When it comes to what annoys people about other drivers, there's one thing that sets texting apart from most other distracting activities while driving: it is highly visible.

Consider the results of a study by the Consumer Reports National Research Center in January that surveyed 895 respondents who were asked to score the most annoying things other drivers do on a scale of one to 10:


Anecdotal arguments vs. statistical data

In August 2010, a 19-year-old driver had sent or received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes leading up to a deadly interstate pile-up in Missouri. Two people died, including the pickup driver, and 38 were injured.

We see these stories in the news and we deride such tragic stupidity. We sneer with disdain when we see other drivers texting while driving. We nod in agreement when a state highway patrol superintendent reports, "It has become a huge distraction in the automobile -- we're seeing it more and more." In this case, the anecdotal is supported by the numbers (Figure at right).

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman says,

"The good news is that accidents caused by distractions are preventable if everyone would just hang up and drive."

But is that really true?

People naturally assume that the number of crashes must be rising with the burgeoning use of cell phones in recent years. Strange as it may seem, however, the number of crashes and fatalities overall have steadily declined, in spite of the exponential growth of cell phone use and text-messaging. In this case, the statistics belie the anecdotal assumptions:

Nick Marshall, the vice chair of Missouri's House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee, says that, if the problem were as bad as some are claiming, his state would have seen a natural spike in wrecks with the rise in cellphone use.

I agree with Mr. Marshall; common sense and simple arithmetic would suggest that we should expect a dramatic increase in crashes with the massive increase of texting. But, as shown in the previous charts, the opposite has happened. What accounts for this apparent incongruity? Why have not the numbers of crashes risen along with the increase of cell phone use in cars? No one seems to know. My guess is, on average, there are people who are distraction-prone and get into crashes -- regardless of the source of distraction -- and there are those who do not.


Effectiveness of anti-texting laws

One way to measure a law's effectiveness is to evaluate any changes that occur after the law is passed. A September 2010 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows the texting bans don't work.

"In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted," said Adrian Lund, IIHS president. The study found statistically significant increases in crashes in California, Louisiana and Minnesota. In Washington, the number of crashes was nearly level. The New York Post reported that the researchers were stumped by the results. "One theory is that texters lower their phones out of sight, forcing them to take their eyes even more off the road."


Live and let text

I used to get pretty irate at other drivers who weren't paying attention. Whenever someone would cut me off in traffic, drive too slowly in the passing lane, change lanes without looking or slam on their brakes after being surprised by orange barrels forcing an unexpected lane merge, I would look for the cell phone. And of course, selective memory being what it is, I would blame all such events on those stupid cell phone texters.

But the more I listened to other people hypocritically complain about cell-phone-using drivers, the more I realized that I, too, was being hypocritical in my attitude. When I learned that various states across the country had passed anti-texting laws, and that Pennsylvania was soon to be next, I began to more seriously consider my perception of other drivers. My feeling now is, as much as I do not want our overreaching government to legislate what I can or cannot do in my own vehicle, likewise I should mind my own business if others want to type messages on their cell phones while driving.

lifestyle - opinion_commentary - intelligencer

James Hilston is a Post-Gazette graphic artist (jhilston@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1268). He writes at jameshilston.com. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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