Don’t drive distracted, okay? Now for some more updated facts. (Follow the whole series under the texting tag.)
The Diane Rehm show on NPR (Washington station WAMU) did another full episode on the perils of distracted driving. The extremely misleading title of the episode was, “Distracted Driving: What It Will Take To Lower Fatalities.”
The guests were researcher David Strayer; Jeff Larason, director of highway safety for Massachusetts; Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and Ben Leiberman, the co-founder of Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs), which is trying to develop the technology (and legislation) to allow police to scan phones at the scene of an accident to determine whether they were being used at the time of the crash.
I am pretty sure that every one of these guests knows that our roads are safer now than they have ever been, and that accident and fatality rates are at historic lows. And yet the entire conversation — without explicitly stating any trend facts — was conducted as if it is self-apparent that the problem is getting worse and worse. Several callers said they see more and more drivers on their phones; someone said one-in-four drivers is using a phone; someone said texting and driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. Maybe more and more people are using their phones while they drive, but that’s not making the roads less safe than they used to be.
Why can’t they handle the truth? Texting and other distractions are dangerous, and people shouldn’t do them — and the roads are getting safer over time. Here are the fatality trends for the last 20 years, from NHTSA:
In the last 20 years, fatalities per mile have fallen 38% and fatalities per person have fallen 34%. That doesn’t make texting and driving okay, okay? But it’s true.
Further, much was made in the conversation about the special risks posed by younger drivers, who are said to be less skilled and more distractable behind the wheel. This also highly misleading. A separate data series, maintained by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has fatal accidents by the age of the driver going back to 1975. This shows that the steepest decline in fatal accidents has been among teenage drivers — a stunning 71% decline in fatal accidents per person in that age group since the peak in 1978. In fact, teen drivers are now involved in fewer fatal accidents per person than 20-34-year-olds:
I can understand that for advocates a story of continuously increasing peril is attractive. That doesn’t justify their refusal to speak facts, but it’s at least predictable. The guests all spoke of the need for more money to be devoted to the problem, more legislation, more awareness — all things that (no offense) pay their personal and professional bills.*
Less forgivable are the journalists who refuse to look seriously at the issue even as they devote inordinate amounts of time to it. This is a serious disservice, because the media-consuming public may want to seriously consider how to allocate resources to address different problems. Call me crazy, but knowing the facts seems important for this process. And in this case it’s not just that the facts are a little out of line with the narrative — they absolutely and dramatically contradict it.
Now for the fact you think I would be reluctant to mention: for the first time in two decades, the rate of property-damage-only accidents has increased for three years in a row. This may be a better measure of accident risk, because the fatality numbers could be partly driven by things like improved medical response time or auto safety devices. Still, property-only accidents per mile are down 21% since 1994 (while mobile phone subscriptions have risen more than 1200%).
That is an interesting turnaround, worth looking into. Unfortunately, I don’t have much confidence in the current crop of experts to offer a credible explanation for it.
* It’s no more surprising than academic professional association staff defending journal paywalls.