The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this week called for a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving. The decision was reached during a public hearing on a fatal traffic accident that took place last year in Grey Summit, Mo. According to the Wall Street Journal, the agency believes the ban is justified because one of the drivers involved in the incident was distracted by text messaging at the time of the accident. The NTSB also encouraged cell phone providers to develop features that discourage cell phone use while driving.
That's about what you could expect from a Federal agency looking to ban something for the good of society. But conspicuously missing from the news reports is any analysis of whether or not cell phone bans for drivers actually make the road safer. Evidence to justify such a restrictive policy is certainly relevant, so why didn't the NTSB cite any? Because it doesn't exist. Like most attempts to ban things we all use, this effort leaps way beyond the available evidence.
In the conclusion to its report on the incident, the NTSB explained that, “A combination of enforceable state laws, high visibility enforcement, and supporting communication campaigns can reduce the number of accidents caused by drivers distracted by the use of portable electronic devices.”
But anybody willing to investigate should be able to poke holes in what is supposedly the opinion of government experts. A study published last year, and funded by the auto insurance industry (or, people who don't like to pay for car accidents), concluded that claims rates didn't decrease after a slew of cell phone bans were enacted in 2010. Further, the study found no discernible difference between states with such bans and states without.
Still, anecdotes pulling our heartstrings can be powerful, so let's consider a few more facts. Since 1995, both the number of cell phone users and the number of minutes spent on the devices have exploded in this country. Interestingly enough, however, the number of traffic related fatalities has dropped. In other words, not only is the scientific evidence to justify a ban lacking, so is the statistical evidence. Governments and special interest groups love citing statistics when stumping for restrictions on people's behavior — “x is associated with y; let's ban y” — but they can't in this case because the trend goes in the opposite direction.
But, put all the numbers aside for a moment. Even if the federal government had every bit of evidence to support the assertion that the bans are effective, how exactly can they be enforced? There are a lot of variables in play here and a national ban like the one in question will be enforced arbitrarily. After all, we will still be relying on police officers to fairly enforce these laws. How will they know that someone was using a cell phone?
It is also worth considering what makes cell phones special as distractions for drivers — absolutely nothing is my suspicion. While they drive, people eat, listen to music, talk with passengers, gawk at billboards and pedestrians, and engage in all sorts of activities that could be considered dangerous to themselves or others. Do we ban these as well?
The simple fact is that existing is a risky business; there are all sorts of things that can kill us. Reducing our chances of dying as best as we can is wise, but in the case of cell phone bans, it doesn't appear that we can. Until better evidence comes in, all we have is another instance of shark jumping by zealots interested in meddling in the affairs of others.
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