Cell phones don’t kill people, cars kill people

A powerful new documentary by Werner Herzog is making the rounds (presented by the phone companies), showing the consequences of accidents caused by phone-distracted driving. It got me to revisit my posts on mobile phones and traffic accidents and do some more speculating about this.

A new report from the federal government shows that, of 29,757 fatal crashes in 2011, 10% were reported to involve a distracted driver. Of those distracted-driver crashes, 12% involved a driver using a cell phone. Thus, the 350 fatal crashes in which a driver on a cell phone was reported to be involved account for 1.2% of all fatal crashes. (This is probably an undercount, as accidents can’t be coded this way without witnesses or a driver confession.)

Meanwhile, from 1994 to 2011, mobile phone subscriptions increased more than 1200%, from 24 million to 316 million. During that time, the number of traffic fatalities per mile driven has fallen 36%, and property-damage-only accidents per mile have fallen 31%. The improved safety of American roads is a big accomplishment. Here are the trends:

phonetraffictrendsSources: Accidents and deaths: this and earlier reports; Subscribers: this.

According to the US Department of Transportation, 5% of drivers are observed talking on handheld phones at any one time. Rates of distraction are presumably higher than this. There is an epidemic of distraction — and there is voluminous evidence that such distraction is dangerous — coinciding with large, continuous declines in traffic dangers.

How is this possible? Either (a) there is no connection between phones and accidents; (b) there is a positive causal connection, but it is swamped by whatever is making the roads safer; or, (c) cell phones are making the roads safer (say, by displacing other, more dangerous distractions, or by causing people to drive cautiously while they’re doing something they know is dangerous). It’s just a question. Anyway.

Cars kill people

The 1971 Keep America Beautiful Campaign featured this video: “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.” It shows intense industrial pollution in the background as an American Indian paddles his canoe. Then:

Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. [Someone throws a bag of fast food waste out of a passing car, and it lands at the feet of the canoer, now standing on the shore.] And some people don’t.

The “crying Indian” ad tried to hang the global pollution crisis on the personal malfeasance of individuals who litter (which is a real problem).

Is the anti-phone campaign trying to hang the problem of 30,000 road deaths per year in the U.S. on the reckless behavior of individuals who drive distracted? Distracted people causing carnage and destruction on the roads is terrible, of course. But a system of transportation that relies on people driving around in private cars is a much more fundamental problem.

I’m sure someone else has figured out how many lives are saved (presumably) from using public transportation versus private cars, but I didn’t easily find it. In addition to the environmental health benefits, clearly countries where people get around in cars have a lot more road deaths:


Sources: Passenger miles, road deaths, country populations.

The number of rail deaths is very small: in these countries the car/rail death ratio averaged 36, almost three-times the car/rail mile ratio. (The U.S. is not on the chart because I didn’t have rail miles traveled. But the U.S. road death rate of 10.4 per 100,000 would make us 4th in this group, behind only Greece, Poland, and Portugal.)

Let’s put it this way: Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the safety of their fellow citizens. And some people don’t. Public transportation saves lives.

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.

The texting-crash epidemic that isn’t?

A little off the usual subject, but I guess this goes in the category of priority-setting in general.

A new CDC report on fatal crashes among teenage drivers shows just what you would never expect with all the news and legislation concentrating on the epidemic of crashes caused by texting and phoning while driving. With 11% of drivers are on the phone at any one time, it’s a serious problem.

I don’t doubt the danger. But this is my question: Where is the upward trend in traffic deaths and accidents? Here is the figure for teen driving fatalities:

Annual rate per 100,000 population for drivers aged 16 or 17 years involved in fatal crashes, by age group (Fatality Analysis Reporting System, United States, 1990–2008). Source: CDC.

In the population overall, the number of wireless phone subscribers increased by 10-times from 1994 to 2006, but the rate of traffic fatalities per mile traveled dropped 18% during that time. Here’s my chart based on those numbers.


I don’t doubt it’s dangerous to talk on the phone while driving, and texting is reportedly even worse. But the argument that cars are just safer, or that texting causes a lot of minor accidents, doesn’t fly, since accidents causing property damage only, per mile driven, have also declined, by 24%, from 1994 to 2007.

I still think phone-based distractions are replacing other distractions, like eating, grooming, listening to music, supervising children, or interacting with other passengers. Not that it’s not dangerous, but its overall contribution to our risk profile doesn’t match the size of its media and political footprint.