Saturday, November 24, 2018

Two Dirty Little Secrets About the 'Distracted Driving' Debate

The Houston Chronicle has published a series on traffic deaths which, from Grits' observation, mostly has repeated tropes from self-interested secondary sources rather than investigate causes and solutions.  Only one article in the series - on traffic engineering - advocated for solutions Grits believes would significantly contribute to traffic-death reductions. The rest gave platforms for elites to promote their own, self-interested agendas.

Readers will recall the Chron's extended advocacy piece masquerading as news advocating for an increase in patrol officers to make DWI arrests. Having covered the vagaries of DWI arrest-and-death data for several years, Grits responded to point out that, in fact, there appeared to be little relation. DWI enforcement has plummeted in recent years, along with traffic enforcement, as police shifted to other priorities and the Department of Public Safety increasingly sent its traffic-patrol force to the border. But per-capita DWI death rates declined, despite the radical drop in enforcement. The Chronicle ignored that data to advocate for more arrests.

Their latest offering promotes the fake-news media bugaboo of distracted driving, calling for a criminal ban on talking or texting on the phone while driving and stiffer enforcement of current prohibitions.

I say "fake news" because the press have chosen to hone in on banning cell-phone use despite evidence that a criminalize-it approach doesn't work and may do more harm than good. That's what happened here, and in this case, I'd presented the reporters with contrary information that they either downplayed or didn't report.

The article significantly, and one must conclude, intentionally, overstates the extent to which cell-phone distractions contribute to deaths. But because they had seen the contrary information (I sent it to them), they phrase it in a way that acknowledges the counter-narrative then ignores the implications to pivot to a relatively minor cause of "distraction." Their commentary avoids ever making a declarative statement saying cell-phone use is a significant cause of traffic fatalities (since really, it is not), instead declaring experts are focusing on it, which apparently gives the authors license to never focus anywhere else. Here's their assessment of the problem:
The problem of distracted driving is as old as the automobile. Cellphones get the bulk of the blame of late, but safety experts say a range of features and pastimes — from stereos to food to the seemingly endless variety of gauges, indicators and dashboard displays — can present a danger. Sometimes the distraction is not even inside the vehicle; roadside vistas or startling scenes draw drivers' attention away from the lanes ahead. As long as people have passengers or the propensity to daydream, drivers will always have something else on their minds.

The issue has particular relevance in Houston and Texas, where cars are personal and sacred spaces, in part because of how much time drivers spend in them. The average one-way commute in the Houston area is nearly 30 minutes, and it is not uncommon for workers to spend an hour or more in the car each morning and evening.

So drivers pass the time as pleasantly or as usefully as they can. They listen to music or podcasts. They make work or personal phone calls. They eat and drink. During the morning commute, drivers can check their rear-view mirrors and see a man making last-minute hair fixes or a woman applying makeup. Many are doing multiple things at once, such as smoking a cigarette while holding their phone while reaching to turn down the radio or grab a sip of coffee. 
All of it adds up to distraction. Safety experts have zeroed in on cellphones, mostly because the devices have become ubiquitous in everyday life.
The rest of the article is an advocacy piece for criminalizing cell-phone use in the car, masquerading as a news article. Like the unnamed experts, the authors "zeroed in on cellphones" while ignoring much more significant distractions.

Conflating "distracted driving" with cell-phone use and focusing on the latter is like trying to reduce one's carbon footprint by installing a single, energy-efficient light bulb in the utility room while driving a gas-guzzling SUV.

Here's Dirty Little Secret #1 about this debate: People who are prone to distraction will find something to distract them. Take away one distraction and they will find another. Mainly we're talking about young people, whose accident rates were higher than adults long before smart-phones showed up on the scene.

Daydreaming is a bigger distraction, by far, than talking and texting on the phone combined. Should we criminalize that? In my own experience, trying to manage or discipline kids in the back seat while driving can be a bigger distraction than any phone call, in part because it can require looking back and taking one's eyes off the road. Number two for me would be fiddling with the radio (at least, before the radio was replaced by my phone). But I've never heard any of the distracted driving whiners suggest bans on those common behaviors.

Ditto for eating in the car; reporters do that routinely so THAT'S not going to be the low-impact behavior they choose to castigate. And while, because of gender-subject position, I cannot speak with first-hand knowledge, I've wondered with amazement as I've seen women in traffic putting on their make up in the rear-view mirror. It's hard to imagine a greater distraction than that, short of just opening up a broadsheet newspaper and reading a bullshit article about distracted driving.

In reality, only 1.2 percent of fatal traffic crashes involve distracting cell phone use. And indeed, late in the article, after laying out their advocacy argument for increased criminalization, they acknowledge the data don't justify their suggestions under a subhed labeled "Irregular reporting." "From 2010 through 2017, there were 4,997 roadway fatalities in the region, and crash reports listed a cellphone being in use in only 60 of them," they inform us, which would seem to be a de minumus source, in the scheme of things.

Rather than accept the implications of the data in front of them, they quote someone paid to "advocat[e] nationally for tougher phone laws" declaring "We're quite certain it's underreported." The rest of the article goes on in detail about how few people are ticketed for texting while driving and implicitly chastising agencies that don't share the reporters' priorities.

Given that per-capita traffic-death rates have been declining in Texas, it's hard to see where this supposed epidemic is causing some new raft of problems.

Indeed, nowhere in the article do we see mention of a study by an insurance-industry institute, which I told them about, which found that states enacting texting bans had higher texting-related-death rates as a result. The insurance-industry folks behind the study hypothesized that criminalizing the behavior made people hold their phones in their laps instead of up by the wheel where they could keep half an eye on the road.

Whatever the reason, shouldn't that counter-intuitive result  at least be part of the calculus? Shouldn't Texas learn from the mistakes of other states and not pass laws that may increase traffic deaths? For that matter, should Houston Chronicle readers be made aware of real-world results that contradict the thrust of reporters' advocacy for criminalizing widespread behaviors?

Which brings us to Dirty Little Secret #2: Cell-phone bans are a blame-the-victim coverup by politicians to shift attention from their own failures to invest in road safety. That includes both public transportation in and in between major Texas cities, and the sorts of traffic-engineering investments described in their one, useful article in this series.

Because roads are expensive and Texas politicians for two decades have been falling over themselves to outdo one another on who is the most anti-tax, Texas has failed to invest in its road systems, in its bridges and overpasses, in accommodations for cyclists and pedestrians (and now, scooters), much less in engineering improvements that would increase traffic safety. And this failure to invest is costing lives, as Grits wrote back in 2014:
By contrast, few politicians want to talk about the much more significant cause of fatal accidents in Texas: Under-investment 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.
And lo and behold, which Texas legislator is the state's most vocal proponent of texting-while-driving bans? Why, it's state Rep. Tom Craddick, a former House Speaker who represents the Permian-Basin-oil-patch, but whose leadership did not coincide with investments that might have prevented the spike in deaths described above.

As it turns out, the majority of Texas traffic deaths are in rural areas; by contrast, about 15% of the state's population lives in rural areas. That means a lot of the urban, commuter-oriented critiques on which the Chronicle focused miss the big-picture patterns driving traffic deaths.

This focus on "distracted driving," in Grits' view, is at root a self-interested distraction for the public aimed at diverting attention from the much more significant causes of traffic deaths - mainly failure to invest in various types of infrastructure. Those stem from politicians' direct decisions, for which they could and should be held accountable. By name. During elections.

Instead, the newspaper quotes those same politicians blaming the public for using their phones while they're stuck on the dysfunctional transportation system their government has provided them, in the Houston area, sometimes for hours at a time. And they do so even though they know (because data they reported show it) that cell-phone use is at most a minor contributor to traffic deaths.

This is lazy reporting. Not only does it ignore data in the authors' possession and fail to follow up on its implications, the narrative it presents told us nothing that hasn't already been reported a hundred times. More, even, than promoting misinformation in service of an elite agenda, un-originality may be these reporters' most serious offense.

17 comments:

Gadfly said...

Of course, neither you on your side, nor the Chron on its side address ... oh, say, banning cellphone use while driving, period. That would take care of distractions AND trying to use cellphones on labs, etc.

Or, tell cops to cite all of the above AND eaters for reckless driving.

More seriously, I think "device" use in general has enough addictiveness potential I would be fine with a blanket ban on cellphones and other Net-connected devices while driving, period.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The Chron did advocate a total ban, or implicitly did. Do you think the public would comply? What should be done if they don't?

Anyway, you may be fine with it, but that means you're okay with enacting statutes that, in practice, have increased traffic deaths in states where they were enacted. Ignoring data and evidence because an argument sounds good is the root of this dilemma. These are complicated dynamics.

doran said...

I guess we all have our favorite example of stupid driving. Mine was the female driver of a small car on the inbound leg of a commute into Austin, passing me on the left: her legs crossed at her lap, a book open on her legs, and her reading the book, with an occasional looking ahead. I was in a large pickup, which enabled me to watch what could have been a disaster in the making.

I enjoyed your post. It is always fun to read a great take-down of poor writing and piss-poor argument, as you have done in this post.

Anonymous said...

"for elites..."; "the fake-news media..."; "coverup by politicians..."; "an elite agenda..."

Thought about running for the presidency? You definitely have the language down!

Anonymous said...


'' Grits for Governor '' definitely has a ring to it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The difference is, 9:32, my facts all check out. I suspect that disqualifies me. ;)

C.M. Mike Adams said...

As a relative newcomer to Grits please let me ask a basic question. Does Grits consider stats based on a per capita basis, and if so, is that always - sometimes - never? Does grits know how the stats were determined when the Chron posted their article on this subject? Does Grits feel that factors other stats (which of course also equals money) when forming an opinion on this subject?

It seems to me that distracted driving is a 'whole different ball game' than DWI. God, and maybe only God, truly knows how hard it is to get an alcoholic to quit drinking to the point that they will always drive only while sober. Grits probably has volumes and volumes of archives (or memories) related to repeated drunk driver accidents and drunk driver deaths caused by the same drunk aka offender.

I doubt that distracted drivers will ever match the stats that drunken drivers have created in any given year. Their own stats will be bad enough but whereas one arrest might stop a distracted driver it rarely stops a distracted drunk driver or just a drunk driver for that matter.

Does Grits know if ANY MSM outlet ever uses stats based on a per capita basis? I do not think they do~!

Thank you.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ Mike. The answers are:

Yes, sometimes, when appropriate
Yes, I know where their stats came from.
Yes, I look at both qualitative and quantitative factors.

I know of no evidence that arresting distracted drivers, or ticketing them, reduces the behavior. There's no evidence of it, and in fact phone-related deaths increase in states where they implemented texting bans. So your "might" is trumped with historical experience.

Lots of MSM outlets use per capita stats, when it suits their purposes. If the per capita death rate were going up, the reporters would have used them in this article.

Anonymous said...

"Drivers’ odds of crash involvement nearly doubled when they were engaging in all forms of visual-manual cell phone tasks taken together and more than doubled when they were texting, compared with when the same drivers were under similar traffic and environmental conditions without engaging in any visible non-driving tasks.

The effect of visual-manual cell phone interactions on drivers’ odds of crash involvement was greatest for types of crashes in which the driver played a clear active role. For example, visual-manual cell phone interaction:
• Tripled drivers’ odds of involvement in a road departure crash.
• Increased drivers’ odds of rear-ending the vehicle ahead by more than a multiple of seven."

Owens, J.M., Dingus, T.A., Guo, F., Fang, Y., Perez, M. & McClafferty, J. (2018). Crash Risk of Cell Phone Use While Driving: A Case – Crossover Analysis of Naturalistic Driving Data. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

As for crash reports listing or not listing cellphone use, as half the states have no requirement to make that determination, few officers will address it.

"According to the NSC report, Undercounted is Underinvested: How Incomplete Crash Reports Impact Efforts to Save Lives:
No state crash reports have fields or codes for police to record the level of driver fatigue at the time of a crash
26 state reports lack fields to capture texting
32 states lack fields to record hands-free cell phone use
32 states lack fields to record specific types of drug use identified on positive drug tests, including marijuana
States also fail to capture the use of advanced driver assistance technologies (50 states), teen driver restrictions (35 states) and the use of infotainment systems (47 states)"

In other words, many (most?) studies regarding cellphone use based on accident reports completed by the police are suspect.

As for the effectiveness of policing, no cops are policing texting and driving so no effectiveness can be shown. Kinda in the same vein as to why inner-city homicides go unsolved as Leovy remarked in her work Ghettoside.

And daydreaming? I believe if anyone else used that scenario, I suspect you would label it a straw-man argument.

P.S. By your own definition, I suspect many would label you an elitist pushing an elitist agenda in your work to improve Texas justice.

In any case, keep up the work. :~)



Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:42, I agree all the experiments show drivers make more mistakes when texting than when not texting. No one disputes this. That's DIFFERENT from proving that they're a bigger problem than all the other distractions out there, which the best available evidence shows they're not. Instead, they're a small source compared to other distractions.

Texas crash reports list cell phone use when applicable.

We do know the effectiveness of policing. It makes things worse. See the study referenced in the post showing distracted-driving related crashes went up in states that implemented texting bans.

Re: daydreaming, according to the federal figures, daydreaming accounts for half again more distracted driving crashes than texting and talking on phones combined. Not sure why you'd consider that a straw man. It's just what the data says. Should we make up different data so it will agree with your premise?

Finally, if you want to equate wealthy "elites" in the Texas oil industry with a blogger criticizing poor criminal-justice news coverage online, you're welcome to espouse any definition of "elite" you want. I've been called worse.

Anonymous said...


While distracted driving can and does cause accidents, I doubt it causes any more less problems that eating a sloppy fast food sandwich while driving. OOOOPPPS!!!! - Got a mustard stain on my new white shirt just before the job interview - WIPE WIPE – CRASH !!!!!

The whole “distracted driving” argument is just more manufactured police voodoo to create probable cause for stopping and/or arresting otherwise innocent motorists. Nothing more, nothing less.

Sans a warrant or admission by a suspect, there is NO WAY any uniformed officer can determine whether or not a cell phone was in use at the time of a crash, and if in use, what the cell phone was being used for. The idiot reporters at the Chron as well as cops and DAs know this, but these fact run contrary to the public “message” they’d like to promulgate.

Mike said...

Grits... Thank you for the response. I appreciate it.

I suppose you must always use only the data, or evidence, available to you to fuel your posts and make an argument. People depend on you. Still, I worry that because there are no complete studies on the distracted drivers via digital devices we do not have a firm base to make future decisions. IOWs there are no 'available' data. That word 'available' tells the story. Just because there are no data does not prove a point one way or another. Were I rich, like Grits, ; ), I would fund studies to test theories. It makes perfect sense to me that a 21-year-old distracted driver, once ticketed, or twice ticketed, for digital distracted driving would stop the process as compared to a multitude of drunk drivers who just don't care until after they have caused a fatal wreck. Then they are oh-so-sorry.

Without a study to back up my opinion, it remains an opinion. but I think, a valid one.

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P. Ghosh said...

As a plaintiff who has filed a discrimination claim at the Texas Department of Public Safety commission chairman Stephen P Mach. Filed in the United States District Court southern district of Texas at Houston. I'm not surprised this controversy with the Texas Department of Public Safety which takes over 2 months to schedule a road test. it's customer service representatives are some of the most unknowledgeable unprofessional unethical and rude people I've ever seen in my life. I can't wait for the court date United States Marshal Service that has been ordered to serve all of them here in the near future this state is in shambles and the taxpayers the most uninformed people on the planet.

Coach87 said...

I can attest from personal experience that texting and driving is dangerous. I was a police officer for more than 30 years. Distracted driving is a MAJOR contributor to accidents, and texting is the worst of these. Also, my daughter was injured and had major damage to her car after a young driver texting slammed into the car behind her and created a five car pile up with about $20 K in damage. Somebody who does this deserves a traffic ticket.

I can also attest that DWI's ARE dangerous as well. They kill innocent people and maim others. A friend of ours had his life turned upside down after a wrong way DWI on an interstate hit his son head on. The kid had to drop out of college and had numerous surgeries. He is back together now, but it took two years and well over a hundred thousand dollars. The person who did this committed a CRIME and, at least in this case was (thankfully) held liable.

There are no valid excuses for drivers who don't uphold their basic responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

Forget scientific studies, a cop has anecdotes.

Anonymous said...

I can attest from personal experience that texting and driving is dangerous.

I take issue with the above statement. my phone is part of my drive.