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A Magazine of Ideas

Just How Dangerous Is Talking and Driving?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The NTSB, cell phones, and regulatory hyperbole.

A recent announcement by the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency responsible for traffic safety and investigating traffic-related accidents, recommended that all states ban drivers from using portable electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle. According to the Governors Highway Traffic Association, 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam ban texting while driving; nine states and the District of Columbia forbid hand-held cell phone use by drivers; and 30 states prohibit all cell phone use for beginning drivers. Interestingly, no state (or the District of Columbia) presently bans the use of hands-free telecommunication devices for the general populace.

The results of a July 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) found that texting while driving increased the probability of a crash by a factor of 20 times, but dialing a cell phone only increased the risk of accident by a factor of 2.8 times, while talking or listening to a cell phone conversation increased it 1.3 times. In comparison, reaching for an object while driving increases the risk of an accident by 1.4 times. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has found no evidence suggesting that a driver using a hands-free PED has a lower risk of crashing than a driver using a hand-held PED. However, these study results by no means imply that cell phones, whether hand-held or hands-free, should be considered dangerous. According to VTTI, the most consequential factor in determining the likelihood of a traffic accident is whether the driver keeps his or her eyes on the road.

The majority of state governments have already instituted legal bans on driver texting, with most of the remaining states considering enacting such legislation.

In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 32,788 people died as a result of motor vehicle accidents on American roadways. This is the lowest level of fatalities since 1949, when there were 30,246 fatalities recorded. Also in 2010, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles driven fell to a historic low of 1.09. According to the NHTSA, 3,092 of the 32,885 reported fatalities were distraction-related (down 43.5 percent from 5,474 fatalities in 2009). They are attributed to a variety of driver distractions, such as a driver’s cell phone use (including texting), eating, drinking, conversing with passengers, interacting with in-vehicle technologies, daydreaming, and dealing with intense emotions.

However, the percentage of distraction-related fatalities that can be attributed to cell phone use is unclear. Based on the 20 times increased risk factor for accidents associated with texting, it is reasonable to assume that this source of driver distraction significantly exceeds fatalities related to drivers speaking on cell phones (a 1.3 times increased risk factor). The majority of state governments have already instituted legal bans on driver texting, with most of the remaining states considering enacting such legislation; the sooner, the better. The problem of comparing cell phone usage to texting as a major source of driver distraction is that no empirical evidence exists to support this claim. To have federal regulatory authorities cavalierly lump them together is simply disingenuous.

Thomas A. Hemphill is associate professor of strategy, innovation, and public policy at the University of Michigan-Flint’s School of Management.

FURTHER READING: Scott Shane writes “Small Business, Big Regulatory Burden,” “When the Color of Unemployment Is Green,” and “Are Federal Policies Toward Small Business Contracting Succeeding?” David Schoenbrod demands “No Regulation Without Representation.” Karlyn Bowman contributes “The Public View of Regulation, Revisited.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group