17th December 2011
The nanny state’s micro-management: Do mobile phones “cause” accidents?
This is an intriguing question that I've not paid much attention to, but came across analysis which shows that "while the number of cellphones on the road has skyrocketed in recent decades, traffic deaths and traffic accidents have declined" [Source].
Since 1995, there's been an eightfold increase in cellphone subscribers in the United States, and we've increased the number of minutes spent on cellphones by a factor of 58. What's happened to traffic fatalities in that time? They've dropped—slightly, but they've dropped. Overall reported accidents since 1997 have dropped, too, from 6.7 million to 6 million.[Source]
Now, this doesn't prove much. Accidents could be dropping due to other causes by (say) 50 per cent per decade, while mobile phone use could be increasing accidents by (say) 20 per cent per decade, leading to a net decline of accidents by (say) 30 per cent. A mere decline in accidents therefore doesn't prove that mobile phones don't cause accidents.
But the problem is actually much deeper than that. It is about evidence and it is about responsibility.
Why pick on mobile phones when 100s of things distract?
This author nails it: "it’s not at all clear to me that talking on a hands-free cellphone is any more distracting to drivers than talking to passengers in the car—or having screaming kids in the back seat, something that the National Transportation Safety Board has not, as yet, sought to ban."
As this author writes: "It’s as if our mobile phones offer a magical, supernatural ability to distract while we’re driving, while the other thousand things that can also distract us aren’t so bad. There is little evidence to suggest focusing on banning a single type of distraction while driving is going to result in much change in driver behavior."
Talking to someone can distract. Screaming children can distract. An accident outside (rubber-necking) can distract. Eating food while driving can distract. Drinking coffee or smoking while driving can distract. Daydreaming while driving can distract. And so on. There are 100s of distractions. ALL OF THEM COULD CAUSE ACCIDENTS.
So the focus should be on MAKING PEOPLE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR BEHAVIOUR. This might include education on the 100s of causes of accidents. This might include include training drivers to focus on the road DESPITE distractions.
But picking one or two "causes" out of 100s and legislating against them might have unintended consequences. Such legislation might sanitise other distractions and send the message that a gadget is responsible for an accident, not our lack of focus.
We have to take responsibility for safe driving and the law must UNIFORMLY PUNISH those who are responsible for someone's death through reckless driving – REGARDLESS OF THE NATURE OF THE DISTRACTION.
The nanny state should not MICRO-MANAGE us. The state should set GENERAL RULES AND LIMITS, and be done with it. Let the government not enter our cars (or houses).