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NTSB Cell Phone Ban Fails Logical Test

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The National Transportation Safety Board stirred up a lot of controversy last week with its recommendation that all usage of cell phones while driving be banned, including the use of hands-free devices. This has led to proposals for the passage of a federal ban on cell phone usage in cars and concern that the federal government will follow past examples and use the threat of withholding highway funds to force states to pass cell phone bans.

This recommendation is based on a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study which reports that 5,474 people were killed in accidents caused by distracted driving. Of that total, 995 of the deaths were in accidents where the distraction was caused by the use of cell phones. Based on these numbers the NTSB has called for a nationwide ban on cell phone use in cars.

What the NTSB does not tell you is that the statistics in the NHTSA report and from other sources may not entirely support the conclusions which they draw or the solution which they recommend. Overall the number of fatal accidents has declined 22% in the five-year period covered in the study. And while the number of distracted driving fatalities is reported as having increased 20%, there is a clear indication that changes in methodology and an increase in the  reporting of cases as attributable to distracted driving may account for that trend.

In addition, cell phones were only one of 15 sources of distraction identified in the report and accounted for only 18% of the total cases. Other even more common activities like eating, drinking and smoking in the car accounted for more fatal accidents, but were not included in the call for a ban. The report also does not clearly differentiate between texting and talking on a cell phone, nor does it analyze the difference between talking on a hand held versus a hands free device, yet the NTSB has called for banning all of these uses accross the board, though there is no evidence that there is any real danger associated with using a hands-free cellular device.

A look at another NHTSA report which makes a more comprehensive analysis of traffic safety trends shows that in the 20 years since the use of cell phones became widespread the number of fatal traffic accidents is actually down by 40% and is down by an even larger percentage when indexed for population growth.  Taken together with the increase in distracted driving deaths in the last five years when texting has become much more common, this suggests that texting may be the real problem, not cell phone use in general.

With a total of 5.585 million auto accidents per year in the United States, it is reasonable to estimate that about 1 million of those crashes are caused by cell phone use. That is somewhat less than the number of crashes caused annually by deer according to State Farm. Does that mean that the government should make a priority of fencing in all highways or exterminating all deer? There is no evidence of the NTSB suggesting any effort to prevent those equally preventable accidents. Why is the threat of cell phones more important than the many other preventable threats which drivers face?

Then there is the question of whether the number of deaths attributable to cell phone use is even statistically significant. With over 33,808 traffic fatalities in 2009 and only 995 cell phone related deaths, we’re talking about 2.9% of all fatalities blamed on cell phones compared to 32% of traffic deaths involving alcohol. That’s a far more serious and equally preventable danger, though draconian solutions to that problem like cars which won’t start without a passing breathalyzer test are also pretty unappealing.

Weighed against all of this are the undeniable benefits of convenience and productivity associated with cell phone use. No one wants to measure the cost of human lives against convenience, but nonetheless in the real world we do it every day.  Being able to make calls from the car without the distractions of the office or home has a great appeal to the typical American workaholic.

The basic truth is that the NTSB is grossly exaggerating the seriousness of the threat of cell phone use by drivers.  It’s far down the scale of threats to public health and safety and it does not make sense to make it a legislative priority at a federal or a state level.  Obviously you should be careful about all sorts of distractions in the car.  Just as you should keep an eye out for deer on the highway and not drive at all after you have been drinking.  But ultimately all of these are issues of personal responsibility, not problems which rise to the level where they threaten the “general welfare” as defined in the Constitution and justify government intervention.  This nation faces many serious problems.  This is just not one of them.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Deano

    Nice article Dave!
    The problem with legislating a cell phone ban is that cell phones are not the problem merely a symptom. The issue is distracted driving and poor decision-making on the part of drivers. The driver makes a decision to use their cell phone, or juggle coffee and a danish (or possibly a Dane…), or to put on eyeliner or fiddle with their radio.

  • troll

    …thought is the biggest distraction while driving – it should be banned

  • It needn’t be banned, especially in the US, since it’s one of the rarest commodities in existence.

  • If oil companies made cellphones, legislators wouldn’t even be talking about this.

  • Igor

    I’m a defensive driver and defense has been a very good strategy for me: I have never struck another car, and the only time I’ve been struck is when standing still.

    I never make a cellphone call when driving, and if the cellphone rings I inform the caller (in the rare cases I answer it) that I’m driving and I’ll call back in a few minutes when I pull over. All my friends and acquaintances know this, and most often reply that they’ll call back at a more convenient time.

    I am convinced from observing my own and others behaviour when trying to talk and drive at the same time that it is the most dangerous distraction, so I am in favor of outlawing cellphone conversations.

    In fact, as part of my defensive driving precautions, I stay clear of cellphone-preoccupied drivers: for example, I don’t pass them on the freeway because their lane movements are noticeably unpredictable. I prefer to stay behind and keep them in my sights.

  • I find my GPS navigation system, while useful on long trips, to be a far greater distraction than my cellphone, although this may simply be because I hate talking on the phone at the best of times and find “I’m driving” to be a splendid excuse not to have to.

    Other serious driving distractions that I am at a loss to find any congressional moves to ban:

    1. Cops (in general, but especially cop cars parked rather obviously on the shoulder like a cat waiting for the mouse to poke its head out);
    2. Giant billboards, especially the animated electronic ones that light up at night with the energy of 10,000 suns;
    3. Passengers (in general, but especially those who feel it is their duty to advise you how to drive);
    4. The radio;
    5. Stupidly positioned dashboard/steering column controls and displays that you have to take your eyes off the road to look for;
    6. Freeway exit/interchange signs that give you less than half a mile’s notice;
    7. Running late for work (self and others);
    8. Radio shows and commercials featuring car horn or emergency vehicle siren sound effects;
    9. Street corner sign twirlers;
    10. Girls advertising bikini car washes.

  • Deano

    As I noted, its not the distractions – there will always be distractions – its the driver’s decision-making process around managing and dealing with them.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Yep – the same old excuses – “I am so careful, using a cell phone while driving is not a problem for me!”

    Just like “I drive better after a few beers” and “I never get into a wreck so I don’t need my seat belts”. And “they’re not outlawing this other problem, so why outlaw what I don’t want to get outlawed?”

    It’s always the ‘other person’ who’s the problem – it can’t be us, huh?

    Fortunately, even though the majority of BC denizens seem to be strongly against the proposed nationwide ban, those who are in a position to know – like cops and EMT’s – are probably very strongly for the ban.

  • Glenn, that was not the thrust of my article at all. The excuses are irrelevant. The existence of distractions and their effect on risk is a given. The question is whether the threat is of a scale sufficient to justify the extreme reaction.


  • Those who are in the position to know what? Honestly, Glenn, your blind devotion to perceived authority is rather disturbing. And you don’t even know if they are.

    I’ll grant you that using a handheld device is likely to cause more accidents, but if you can’t talk on a hands-free device, why should you be allowed to talk to a passenger in the car? How will a cop know if you are having a hands-free call? From your mouth moving? Will people have to worry singing to music is probable cause to getting pulled over?

    Don’t kid yourself. This isn’t for the greater good as Dave’s math shows. It’s a way to tax people who get caught on the phone.

  • zingzing

    it’s already illegal in a lot of states. i’ve been caught in new york talking on the cell. had no idea i could be fined for doing so.

    i was recently caravanning with three or four cars and the only way to send out mass directions was via text. so i’m going down the highway into new orleans at rush hour about 10 mph over the limit and the only directions i had were coming by text. needless to say, i almost died.

    it’s a dangerous thing to do. but banning the use of hands-free devices as well? come on, that’s just stupid. people are going to use their cells in their cars. might as well let them do it if they can keep both hands on the wheel.

    el b’s tax line is pretty close to the truth. i really don’t have to worry about it–i drive maybe once every two years. they’re starting to put cellular signals down in the subways here. ugh.

  • Glenn, the point of my list in #6 was not that my cellular distraction is other people’s problem; it’s that there are ALWAYS going to be distractions of one sort or another, and if you start legislating against one where do you stop?

    The fundamental point is that it is the driver’s responsibility to give their full attention and concentration to their driving, and if they cause an accident while distracted – for any reason – it’s their own silly fault. The object of their distractedness is irrelevant.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    El B –

    Glenn, your blind devotion to perceived authority is rather disturbing.

    Riiiiight. That’s why I was so against Bush, right? He WAS the authority, remember?

    Ah – but I have to bear in mind that just like with Irene, I have been convicted in your own mind by the court of your opinion, and there’s no appeal from such to the court of common sense.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    The idea isn’t to pick-and-choose which distraction’s illegal and which one is not. The idea is to minimize those distractions which can be minimized.

    We’re not going to minimize food in the car, or neon signs along the road, or whether CD’s can be played. But we CAN minimize cell phones.

    It’s sorta like the serenity prayer…but replace ‘what can be changed’ with ‘what distractions can effectively be minimized’. Half a loaf is a lot better than none at all…and that’s why I feel the cell phone ban is a pragmatic benefit.

    Do what you can to minimize the distractions (in case you haven’t seen teenagers texting while driving), don’t worry about the distractions you can’t minimize, and hopefully you’ll have the wisdom to be able to tell the difference between the two.

  • We’re not going to minimize food in the car, or neon signs along the road, or whether CD’s can be played. But we CAN minimize cell phones.

    Sorry, Glenn, that makes no sense. Why can we do one and not the other? Cellphones causing accidents? Pass a law banning cellphone use in cars. Billboards causing accidents? Pass a law banning roadside billboards. Eating causing accidents? Pass a law banning food consumption while driving.

    You see where I’m coming from?

  • I’ve read that it’s been demonstrated by a variety of means that driving while talking on a cell phone, with or without a hands-free device, decreases the ability of the driver about as much as being drunk. My observations and experience accord with this proposition. In fact, I’ve observed that many people can’t even walk properly while using a cell phone. The idea that people aren’t affected significantly by cell phone use seems pretty silly to me. What anyone wants to do about it will vary from person to person. In the past, people used to be tolerant of driving while drunk — they thought it was sort of funny, in fact. I think I’ll take the train….

  • I’m certain no one will disagree with you. Be prepared, however, to answer a barrage of questions from the libertarian as well as the nanny-state camp.

    Good luck!

  • I would happily take the train if by doing so I could get where I was going in a reasonable amount of time.

    Estimated journey time from San Diego to Fresno – my most frequent long-distance trip – on the proposed California High Speed Rail network would be less than three hours – and that’s including the huge detour the route makes into the Inland Empire. Currently (other than flying, which is prohibitively expensive) the fastest way is to drive. Allowing for the necessary rest/meal breaks and LA traffic, the trip takes more than six hours.

    Greyhound and Amtrak take more like eight – if you’re lucky.

  • The Inland Empire?

    Any reference to David Lynch?

  • Nope. The Inland Empire is the colloquial name given to the region immediately east of the Los Angeles-San Diego megalopolis: in particular the urbanized areas of Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties.

  • Interesting. Wonder how the phrase got coined.

  • According to Wikipedia, it was coined by a local newspaper as a publicity tool to encourage people to settle there.

  • Lynch was doing a critique then of the LA-associated lifestyle.

  • Talking on a cell phone while driving creates a revenue stream for police departments in tough economic times. A ban is superfluous.


  • It legitimizes the revenue stream.

  • I didn’t know if Tommy meant that cops were managing businesses-on-the-side from their cell phones while on patrol (and then a ban would be superfluous) OR if he meant that tickets for DWUCP (is that what they’ll call it?) will bring in revenue for police departments the way all the existing traffic violations bring in revenue (in which case a ban would be required, and not superfluous.)

    I know it’s no day at the beach for cops to have to scrape a dead teenager and his cell phone off the road at the scene of a crash, and to call the parents to tell them about it. I know that the laws are motivated at least in part by safety concerns. But I also know that the cash coming from tickets to people who have learned to manage driving and talking at the same time (with hands-free device) will not be unwelcome.

  • And you’re darn right about that. It is a skill you can learn.

    I’ve been in business for over thirty years in CA, which consisted of driving all day with people in the van, dealing their talking and the city traffic, feeding them fliers whenever they’d run out — the kind of stuff which would make most drivers go nuts.

    Same with the cab drivers. They can deal with all that. They have to.

  • One The Road

    I am a delivery driver. I see all kinds of possible accidents waiting to happen. Sorry, but by far the single biggest problem I see is people on their cell phones. I have had so many near accidents with people on their cell phones. They are a distraction, period. Pull over, and stop to talk or text. There are other distractions like putting on make-up, eating, and smoking. Just talking to someone else in the car with you is a distraction. It’s just that cell phones are way more prevalent. I’m all for the ban.