Warning: Personal electronic device ban approaching

Let’s just stipulate that using a personal electronic device while driving increases the risk of an accident and should be avoided.

Let me just make sure I have the rest of the facts straight.

1. The total number of traffic deaths is at its lowest level since 1949, even as the population, number of vehicles, and number of miles driven have all increased radically.

2. The number of mobile phone subscribers has increased more than 1,000% since the early 1990s.

3. “Distraction-affected” crashes accounted for less than 10% of traffic fatalities in 2010.

4. Deaths attributed to drivers age 17 and younger have fallen by about half since 1990.

5. The National Transportation Safety Board “is recommending that states prohibit all drivers from using cellphones, for talking or texting.”

Here’s a visual on some of the trends, in one figure:

Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: 2009-2010 deaths, deaths trends;  Federal Communications Commission: phone trends; CTIA: 2009 phone subscriptions.

Here is my outrageous photo of the day (taken this morning, with my personal electronic device, while I was stopped at a light):

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Here are my previous posts on this.

23 thoughts on “Warning: Personal electronic device ban approaching

  1. Interesting findings, but not much in the way of a definitive conclusion. It’s possible to interpret these data in a number of ways, each of which implies a different policy intervention:

    1) Increasing cell phone usage leads to lower accident fatality rate. Policy implication: we should encourage drivers to use cell phones more often.

    2) Increasing cell phone usage has no effect on the accident fatality rate and the secular decline is due to other factors (increasing road network safety, car safety features, age distribution of drivers etc). Policy implication: we should neither encourage nor prohibit the use of cell phones in cars.

    3) Increasing cell phone usage causes more accident fatalities than would occur otherwise, but other factors (like those mentioned above) offset this effect and lead to an overall decline. Policy implication: we should prohibit the use of cell phones by drivers since the accident rate would be lower than it is currently if deaths attributed to cell phone usage had not occurred.

    I don’t know which of these is correct, but the data in the current graph above cannot tell me which one is correct, either.


    1. I agree. Given the ambiguity, my preference is not for a cell phone ban, but for distracted driving rules that are more generalizable, with penalty enhancements, etc., rather than a ban on a particular behavior.


      1. Without more data than that presented above, we cannot make any conclusion about the need for or effectiveness of a cell phone ban.

        But as the poster below points out, there are plenty of studies showing that cell phone use is very dangerous at the individual level. **I’m not saying I think these studies are without flaws, but they provide the best data to bear on this question**

        You’re correct that the trends at the population-level don’t seem to reflect this effect, which is a very interesting finding in itself. But given the individual-level finding, and the undoubtedly huge prevalence of cell phone use, I think it’s much more likely that background factors (like safer roads, faster medical response, age-distribution of drivers) compensate for the increase in cell phones. But this also means that without cell phone-related deaths, the rate would be even lower, and that a cell phone ban is appropriate.

        Without a detailed analysis of population-level trends, it’s tough to make an evidence-based conclusion. But from the evidence we do have, I think a ban is the best option.


        1. But from the evidence we do have, I think a ban is the best option.

          Why aren’t existing laws on harm to property and person enough?


        1. In this case, giving up the ability to talk on a cell phone in a car seems pretty insignificant next to saving several thousand lives.

          We’d save even more lives by cocooning the driver in an isolation booth — no fussing at screaming kids in the back seat or schmoozing a prospective girlfriend! — with cameras for 360o viewing.

          Think of the children!!!


  2. What of the studies which show that texting is as likely to cause accidents as driving drunk?

    I like your theory (previous post) that this is replacing other driving distractions. This would seem to support the policy of enforcing the no-texting rules. Based on my personal experience, it’s extremely difficult to avoid texting when driving (if someone texts me). I suspect that other distractions — grooming, etc — wouldn’t come back too much if people actually stopped texting while driving. They’d be too busy not texting: it takes concentration.

    We really need text-to-speech texting applications for bluetooth. Somebody, start a business, you’ll be rich!


    1. The experimental studies show it’s VERY dangerous to text or talk and drive. I don’t know why it’s not translating to accident events. It might be that the devices are displacing other distractions.


  3. A new John Lott is born — “More Phones, Less Carnage.” I suspect that much of the decline is caused by safer cars and maybe safer roads. I also wonder whether fatalities are the best measure of cell-phone effects. The woman in the picture might wind up in an accident, but it’s unlikely she’ll wind up in the morgue.


      1. I did a quick calculation to find out that HALF of the decline in injury accidents between 1990 and 2009 was due to improvements in the safety of cars (data here http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/transportation/motor_vehicle_accidents_and_fatalities.html)

        The number of injury accidents decreased from 2.1 million in 1990 to 1.5 million in 2009. But they also decreased as a percentage of all accidents from 32.8% to 27.6%. Had this remained the same, there would’ve been 1.8 million injury accidents in 2009. The extra observed decline of 300,000 accidents reflects increase in accident safety (presumably car safety).


  4. Hmmm, people telling other people what to do. Shocking!!

    30 years ago, it was liberals accusing conservatives of trying to control peoples’ lives.

    Now, though, it’s think-of-the-children liberals making 10 jillion rules controlling what we can or can not do, all in the name of “care”.


    1. I don’t think you can simplify things like this into a “telling people what to do” versus “letting people have freedom”.

      Living in a complex modern society means recognizing that some activities must be prohibited because they cause harm to others.

      When we drive on a road, we enter into an informal contract with other drivers that we will remain aware and drive in a way so as to minimize the chance of an accident. Most often, this ‘contract’ is enforced by mutual incentive on the part of drivers to avoid accidents; but in some cases, cell phone use perhaps among them, this incentive system breaks down, and someone must step in to protect the safety of all drivers.

      I don’t think that’s quite the “control of people’s lives” you imagine it to be.


      1. Where is “the line”? And why a priori “he might hurt someone!!” prohibition instead of post facto punishment for actual harm caused?


      2. I think primarily because people don’t always intuitively recognize the social costs of individual behaviors. Individuals might not know (or care) about the consequences of their actions for others. So I don’t think public regulations to recognize and limit these consequences is such an imposition.

        Where is the line? That’s a difficult question to answer, because it depends on the freedom individuals must give up weighed against the potential health benefits. In this case, giving up the ability to talk on a cell phone in a car seems pretty insignificant next to saving several thousand lives.


      3. There’s very little punishment for drivers that hurt other people, especially if the other people are pedestrians or cyclists.

        Maybe we should go with more ex-post facto punishment, such as yanking drivers licenses of anyone involved in a crash…but in practice, even drunks who hit-and-run often are back on the road afterward.


  5. Andy points out the massive improvements in car safety, even since 1994. Usually like what you point out on here, but you can’t just draw a graph of cell phone use and traffic fatalities and assume there is no correlation or negative correlation! As much as I’d like to believe increasing Facebook use is driving the Greek debt crisis: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/correlation-or-causation-12012011-gfx.html

    Also I think we don’t want to rule out the effectiveness of groups like MADD or cell phone bans while driving in various high population states.


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