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As state legislatures around the country rush to ban the use of cell phones in cars, I thought it would be a good time to pause and consider a few facts about cell phones and traffic safety over the past few years.
15 percent of Americans reported owning a Blackberry, iPhone or other smart phone in the same study. Texting continues to explode in popularity, with the average American sending more than 310 texts per-month in 2008, according to the Neilson survey. In 2002, at least 6 percent of drivers on the road at any given time were talking on the phone. 35 percent of all day-time cell phone minutes are used while behind the wheel, according to a report from the NTHSA. The benefit to Americans of being able to use cell phones while driving is estimated to be at least $43 billion, according to a 2002 Harvard University study on the costs and benefits of cell phones in cars.
That same study found that the tremendous cost of banning cell phones in cars does not outweigh the benefits.
A study from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution came to the same conclusion.
An exhaustive study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that outlawing the use of cell phones by drivers did decrease the number of people chatting while driving, but did not save any lives. Or if you prefer your data in graphs, I made these three with data from the NHTSA, Neilson survey, The Pew Center and the U.S.
These facts and data show us that despite all the sensationalistic claims like “talking on a cell phone is more dangerous than drunk driving,” the rapid proliferation of cell phones and text messaging in cars has not made our roads more dangerous. After all, if you ignore the results from fancy “eye-ball tracking” studies and driving simulators, which are not very applicable to the real world anyway, and just ask motorists what they find distracting, they will tell you something surprising. Regular readers of this blog  will know that the New York Times is waging a sensationalistic campaign to ban the use of cell phones while driving. To this end, the Times has run at least seven stories, editorialized, released a movie and even produced a (not very realistic, from my experiences) texting-while-driving computer game as part of its ongoing  Driven to Distraction series. A casual reading of the series would doubtless leave most people with the impression that our roads are getting more dangerous and that cell phones are likely responsible. The graph below shows the decline of fatal car crashes and the increase in cell phone use over the last fifteen years. Probably not.  Vehicle fatality rates have steadily declined since cars were first widely available in the 1920s. Maybe one day GM will regain a little bit of its old screw-consumers, safety-be-damned, to-hell-with-the-environment swagger.


Last week’s post on the push to ban cell phone use in cars and the dangers of carpooling got a lot of attention. Fortunately, the only injuries where some bumps and bruises, but it could have been much worse. I was deep in conversation and did not see the Saturn pulling out of the parking lot on my right. According to a 2006 study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, having a passenger in the car can be just as dangerous as talking on the phone. In an effort to eliminate the added risk of carpooling, 41 states have restrictions on the number of passengers teen drivers can have in the car.
The truth is, despite the proliferation of cell phones and rampant carpooling, driving in America has never been safer. After all, banning carpooling will not only eliminate the risk of distraction, but the increased congestion that would likely result would lower average vehicle speeds thus rendering any accidents that did occur less likely to be fatal. I feel confident that the New York Times will soon call for a carpooling ban and that our legislative leaders will quickly respond. For a paper based in the most pedestrian-oriented city in the country, the editors at the New York Times sure have it in for America’s motorists. The latest salvo from the Times recaps how New York cabbies have been prohibited from talking on cell phones or using hands-free devices for nearly a decade, but almost universally ignores the ban. The ambulance arrived at the scene minutes after the cabs collided, one yellow taxi T-boned into another in a busy Manhattan intersection. What the story doesn’t point out is that despite the “epidemic of gab” that has resulted from the wholesale disregard of the cell phone ban in cabs, traffic fatalities over much of that period have actually declined.
In 2008, over 83 percent of Americans said they owned a cell phone, according to the Pew Center.
Despite the dramatic proliferation of cell phones over the last decade—more than 80 percent of Americans now use them—driving in America is safer than it has ever been. I created it with accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Pew Center for People and the Press. But the graph does show that cell phones are not making are roads dramatically more dangerous. The Detroit News reported yesterday that General Motors, along with ten other auto companies, has signed on to government efforts to ban texting while driving. Perhaps then it can lobby for something that will save lives and improve its bottom line, like banning carpooling.


The dark red Saturn with its crumpled front end and my 2001 VW GTI with its smashed side panels and broken rear axle had already been cleared from the road.
Up until that point in 2006, I had driven tens of thousands of miles in the five years since I got my license—eating, texting and talking on the phone much of the way.
It’s hardly been challenged that the recent New York Times-led hysteria about the need to ban the use of cell phones constitutes an urgent public issue, but there’s an even more menacing threat to the public good that you don’t know about—and it’s lurking in the carpool lane.
And the study found that drivers spend a lot more time talking to passengers than they do talking on their phones.
Despite the fact that risk of accidents increases with each additional passenger in the car, many states and municipalities not only fail to regulate carpooling but actively encourage it through separate high-occupancy vehicle lanes and other initiatives. But if banning the use of cell phones in cars is suddenly a top priority, surely we should take steps to curtail the equally, if not more, dangerous practice of carpooling as well. Shattered glass covered the street as a woman, still in the back seat of one the cabs, clutched her neck in pain. That is, even though cell phones have proliferated over the past decade, the roads in the New York are as safe as or safer than they were before the ban.
If you’re looking for more data on the dangers (or lack thereof) of cell phones in cars, check out this post as well. And they are certainly not the kind of  threat that warrants a three month crusade from the New York Times.
But as a 2006 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute suggests, they are no more dangerous than many other distractions, like passengers, grooming, and eating. Every story is heavy on anecdotes, sensationalism and sentimentality, light on statistics and completely devoid of level-headed analysis. This is not surprising, as it mirrors the national trend: American roads are safer today than at any point since 1960. According to Robert Wilson of the National Safety Council, limiting the number of passengers is critical to safety, particularly for young drivers. “One passenger…increases the risk. Needless to say, there is almost no mention of either the tremendous economic and social benefits the ability of motorists to talk on cell phones brings to society or the fact that our roads today are safer than they have been in decades.




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