Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cell phones responsible for tiny fraction of distracted driving, traffic deaths

Just a quick data-backed reminder, as San Antonio prepares for that city's ban on cell-phone use while driving to take effect next month, that the near-hysteria over drivers using cell phones often overstates the dangers this common behavior poses, which perhaps explains why laws banning phone use while driving haven't significantly reduced accidents. Reported the SA Express-News (Dec. 20):
“Since many things distract drivers, cellphone use may be replacing distractions that drivers would engage in absent phones,” [Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Vice President Russ] Rader said. “So the overall level of distraction may not be going down, even though phone use is.”

Crash statistics similarly show that for as much attention as cellphones get by policymakers and the media, they contribute to a small percentage of crashes.

There were 30,800 fatal crashes nationwide in 2012, a report this year from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states. Of those, 3,050 involved a distracted driver — 378 of whom were on cellphones, the federal data indicate.

That means cellphone use contributed to 1.2 percent of fatal crashes nationwide in 2012.

Federal data from 2010 to 2012 demonstrate that crashes involving cellphones account for about 5 percent to 7 percent of crashes caused by distraction, which in turn make up only about 16 percent of all crashes.
From all the "hang up and drive" hype, you'd think we'd be talking about more than 1.2 percent of fatal accidents. That figure seems low even to someone like me who's a skeptic of criminalizing common behaviors like cell-phone use. While every death is tragic, I'd have expected more fatalities than that to have been on the phone just as a matter of Bayesian probability since, from my own observation, at any given time more than 1.2 percent of drivers seem to be on the phone.

By contrast, few politicians want to talk about the much more significant cause of fatal accidents in Texas: Underinvestment in transportation infrastructure, particularly in the oil patch where the Eagle Ford shale region has seen a 40 percent increase in fatal crashes, but really throughout the state. Those parsimonious budget decisions at the Legislature are contributing more to the traffic fatality total than drivers talking on cell phones. But it's not as much fun to hold a press conference demagoguing against oneself. So it's better from a pol's perspective to find some group to blame and criminalize, like cell-phone users, even if in the scheme of things that's not the most common cause of driving fatalities, by a long shot, and bans may even make the problem worse.


Anonymous said...

the Source you cite is of course an NHSTA site that has bias, known to use junk science and of course doctor the data to reflect the outcome like many sources with an agenda. The DUI stats are a good example. So while cell phones may or may not cause crashes why not realize that regardless it becomes another pol placating the constituents, does little to change anything and can be a discriminatory way to stop and "frisk" so to speak. More money into the coffers, more ways to forfeit assets, make third party enablers such as insurance richer. Its all win win baby, lives are well not even secondary in this.

Alan said...

This addresses only fatalities--the most tragic outcome, to be sure. As a transit user and therefore daily downtown pedestrian, I watch most drivers start looking at their phones as they approach red lights. This leads to lots of accidents and near misses, but the speeds are low enough that there aren't fatal results. Not that this law will make a dent, pun intended.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how they determine if an accident is related to cell phone usage. Seems to me that unless law enforcement is willing to subpoena the data from the cellphone service provider, you'd pretty much just have to rely on the word of the driver of the vehicle. Who would voluntarily admit to causing an accident because they were using their cell phone?

Anonymous said...

It is very likely that cellphone/texting and driving ban bills will pass in Texas long before legalization of marijuana.

Charlie O said...

Cell phone use may not be causing so many fatalities, but it still contributes to a lot of bad driving.

Anonymous said...

I'm a driver, pedestrian, and bicyclist, and I see drivers do dumb stuff all day while glancing at their cell phone.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BqFkRwdFZ0 is pretty interesting.