Lawmakers and policy makers love to feel like they’re doing something, even when that “something” is passing yet another bad law or writing more paternalistic policies. Well-intentioned though they may be, the government — and in fact, nobody — can stop you from making bad decisions about your life. You can’t legislate good judgment.
This past week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) urged a complete ban on talking or texting on smartphones while driving — including hands-free devices. While the ruling isn’t law, it’s a strong recommendation from a federal agency that everyone take up the kinds of strict bans that many states already have on the books in one form or another.
The focus on the method of distraction is the same kind of “blame the technology” emphasis I’ve seen elsewhere in our society (most notably when it comes to “Internet addiction“). It’s as if our mobile phones offer a magical, supernatural ability to distract while we’re driving, while the other thousand things that can also distract us aren’t so bad.
While no one — myself included — is arguing that distracted driving is a good thing, some common sense should enter into the picture when talking about new policies and laws. There is little evidence to suggest focusing on banning a single type of distraction while driving is going to result in much change in driver behavior.
Data is a wonderful thing. It demonstrates why focusing on texting or talking while driving is probably the wrong thing to do if you’re looking to decrease automobile accidents (and motor vehicle deaths).
According to a 2006 study by the NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes involve some form of driver distraction within three seconds before the crash. In Table 8.5 from that report, you can see the relative risk of different in-car driver behaviors.
Over 7 percent of the risk of accidents or near-crashes can be attributed to the driver dialing, listening or talking while on a handheld cellphone (the study didn’t look at hands-free devices). Reading — which can also be a part of texting — is not too good to do either, with 2.85 percent of the risk. But right behind reading is eating — something nearly all of us have done in the car at one time or another — at 2.15 percent. And applying makeup should be outlawed as well, since it’s apparently a risk factor in 1.41 percent of crashes and near-crashes.
The study also found that eyeglances greater than 2 seconds contributed to 18 percent of all crashes and near-crashes. That’s the real reason why texting is so bad — it takes your eyes off the road for more than 2 seconds at a time.
Two seconds may not seem like much… But while driving at 65 MPH, 2 seconds is all you need in order to travel nearly 64 yards — or about two-thirds of a football field. Imagine how much damage you can do in that distance, to people and other drivers, if suddenly confronted with unexpected brake lights in front of you. You’re still going to need another 50 to 70 yards to come to a stop, once you look up and see the brake lights!
But eyeglances as measured in this study weren’t because of texting — they were because of external distractions, such as a parked car on the side of the road, or a police officer who’s pulled someone over. How can you outlaw human curiosity, which would result in the greatest decrease in crashes and near-crashes?
So a fair and reasonable law or policy should not discriminate against the specific type of distraction — whether it’s texting, talking on the phone, eating, reading the newspaper, or putting on makeup. Instead, it should focus on the category of “distracted driving” itself — the behavior, not the specific thing causing the behavior.
But here’s the problem… Trying to outlaw behavior that comes naturally to most people (and often stuff they grew up with) is really, really hard and bound to fail. People won’t stop the behavior just because it’s illegal (look how ineffective speed limits are generally). They’ll continue doing what feels “okay” even if the data suggest otherwise. And police can’t enforce these laws, because it’s virtually impossible to see what drivers are doing in each and every car you pass. If most of the population is engaging in one form or another of distracted driving, it’s also just a question of overwhelming numbers (like Prohibition).
Instead of laws, what’s needed is what’s often already being done — education and reminders about why any of these types of behaviors are generally bad for you (they greatly increase the risk of being involved in an accident). Laws targeted to such a specific behavior while ignoring other, nearly as dangerous ones, are seen for what they are — unfair and unenforceable.
This is Psychology 101: we’re really good at underestimating risk and overestimating our own ability (not to mention the abilities of the automobile we’re driving). While many people will still continue to take their chances, wrongly believing they can multitask well, others might be motivated to curb their distracted driving behaviors to keep that risk as low as possible. After all, few of us want to be injured or die in an automobile accident, so why increase our chances for doing so with only minimal inconvenience?
|Type of Inattention||Population Attributable Risk Percentage|
|Moderate to Severe Drowsiness (all occurrences)||24.67|
Dialing Hand-Held Device
Reaching for a Moving Object
Insect in Vehicle
Talking/Listening to a Hand-Held Device
Reaching for Object (not moving)
Looking at External Object
Read the Popular Mechanics article: Distracted Driving or Distracted Policymaking? Why the Proposed Car Cellphone Ban Is Wrong