NTSB calls for complete cell ban: LaHood backpedals

The NTSB has called for a complete ban on personal electronic communications device usage by drivers on the grounds that any non-emergency usage is unacceptable risky. Here is Deborah A. P. Hersman, NTSB chairman writing in USA Today on 12/15/2011:

Distraction, whether it’s hands-free or handheld, whether it’s texting or talking, is deadly. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said distraction-affected crashes killed 3,092 people last year

Handheld-only bans, such as that proposed in the city of Tucson, are at best not likely to improve safety much; and in fact may have perverse effects. If handsfree become explictly permitted, it may well change behavior of those who formerly chose to abstain entirely, thus increasing risky behavior rather than reducing it.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, in late December “U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he won’t back a proposal to prohibit drivers from talking on cellphones, even hands-free devices, giving a boost to car makers and mobile-phone companies that stand to lose if regulators impose a ban” [wsj]. So there you have it, distracted-driver warrior LaHood won’t back a ban; along with an explanation of presumed pressure from business interests.

At this point, you might be wondering and confused about who-is-who in this Federal alphabet soup: What is the NTSB? This is a both interesting and intricate. One might think that NTSB resides under the DOT, however it turns out that is incorrect: “In 1974, Congress reestablished the NTSB as a completely separate entity, outside the DOT”.  The NTSB is run by a five member board; each nominated by the president for five year terms. Read that as far less politically sensitive, as compared to the Secretary of Transportation.

So Ray LaHood is Obama’s Secretary of Transportation; who runs the U.S. DOT, the United State’s Department of Transportation. And the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) is the group, under DOT, tasked with highway safety.

There is an enjoyably-cycnical view of the subject at LaHood says hands free calls are A-okay; throws NTSB under the bus.

Recent DOT blog  fastlane.dot.gov touts enddd.org.

5 thoughts on “NTSB calls for complete cell ban: LaHood backpedals”

  1. Any loophole to allow handsfree doesn’t comport with the safety data. In other words, the preponderance of scientific evidence is firmly that talking on cell phone is equally bad regardless of handheld or hands free, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_phones_and_driving_safety#Handsfree_device
    (Where, humorously, the only contra finding was a study financed by the manufacturer of handsfree devices)
    “Driving while using a handsfree cellular device is not safer… the increased cognitive workload involved in holding a conversation, not the use of hands, causes the increased risk”

  2. IIHS table of cellphone restriction laws makes the various state’s patchwork of cell bans easier to visualize.

    publichealthlawresearch.org has a detailed list of laws covering MCDs (Mobile Communication devices), along with a published article in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. As of this writing, the table was updated only until July 2011 — i don’t know if the intention is to update the dataset or not(?).

    A less-detailed version of this information is here
    http://www.distraction.gov/content/get-the-facts/state-laws.html
    I sort of imagine this is updated continuously.

  3. This is the sort of thing that, unfortunately, is often cited as “proof” that this or the other ban is having a huge effect:

    senatorsimitian.com says that “Data from 2009 (not yet certified) confirms the trend. ‘That translates to at least 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year,’ ”
    700 FEWER FATALS a year due to the cell phone ban?! Wow that would be great. (there were around 3,600 fatals/year in CA in the years just prior to their ban) Or did he mean across the whole country?

    In any event, there are a number of problems with claiming the reduction is due to the ban. It confuses causation with correlation. The CA ban began in mid-2008, and enforcement began Jan 1, 2009. There were large drops in traffic fatalities throughout the entire US between, say, 2007 and 2009 irrespective of any ban.

    The report referenced below says the total reduction in all phone-related DD was a reduction of 93 fatalites over 2 years; and that’s all cellphone-related fatals, even counting handfree reduction, which isn’t (generally) even covered by the law…

    In a review of CA data, Safe Transportation Research and Education Center (SafeTREC) found, comparing the 2 year period before CA’s ban (July 2008) to the two year period after, that rates of fatalities and overall crashes attributed to cell phones did fall more than than expected…
    http://www.ots.ca.gov/Media_and_Research/Press_Room/2012/doc/CA_Cell_Phone_Law_Study.pdf
    For example, there were 100 handheld cell-related fatals in the before-period, and only 53 in the after period for a 47% decrease; whereas the overall fatality rate declined only 22%.
    So, to use percentages as suggested by the study: the before period saw a 2.5% phone-involved fatality rate (= 197/7830) whereas the after period fell to 1.7% (104/6102). This would imply (they don’t say it like this) the law caused a reduction in fatalities of 0.8%, or 49 additional lives saved over a two-year period. A zero point 8 percent improvement sounds quite small.
    It is not mentioned but seems obvious to me that once cell phone use became illegal; drivers will go to greater lengths to cover up their use; this would tend to skew the data.
    a couple of questions i have: 1) why did handsfree fatalites fall so much? (only minors were banned from using them) and 2) how is it that there are so few distracted driving fatalites (e.g before period were only 396/7830 = ~ 5%), i thought the general claim was ~ 20% of fatals were distracted?
    Here’s a press release from SafeTREC on the subject.
    Also by the way, AZ doesn’t seem to collect this sort of information, save for that one Behavior/Violation of Electronic Comm device in Block 20 of the Az Crash Report.

    The IIHS has a broader study using insurance claims experience. They use neighboring states which did not enact laws as controls; for example CA was compared to OR + NV + AZ (two other states with bans, CT and NY were also considered). They concluded that the ban did not affect claims experience. “Claim frequencies for control states without laws also were declining and generally continued to trend in the same way as claim frequencies for the study states after the laws. There is no evidence that bans on hand-held cellphone use by drivers has affected these trends in collision claims.”
    HDLI: Hand-Held Cellphone Laws and Collision Claim Frequencies
    Since this research comes from the insurance industry, I’m sure some would accuse them of some sort of axe to grind.
    A slightly newer report from IIHS covers texting bansand comes to the similar results (actually finding a slight increase in states instituting a texting ban)

    Long discussions and very comprehensive, and up-to-date as it was current (but as-yet un-published) as of Nov 2012, empirical review (was this a doctoral dissertation?) The Effect of Cell Phone Bans on Driver Behavior, Accidents, and Casualties; Cheng Cheng, Texas A&M University, November 6, 2012
    “cell phone bans do not appear to have any meaningful impact on accidents and casualties”. Here a more-recent shout-out to this study economix.blogs.nytimes.com

    New York state had the first handheld statewide ban… A study of county-by-county fatality and injury rates covering 1997 thru 2007 (the ban was 2003?) “statistically significant” reductions in most counties. The stats used are so dense I couldn’t even figure out the claimed reductions (1 percent? 2? 20?), the authors then go on to a long list of limitations: “There exist several issues that limit the statistical validity of the presented analysis and hamper one’s ability to definitively establish the effect of laws banning hand-held cell phone use while driving on automobile accident rates…” One of the issues they point out is that other effects were on-going.
    This study had no control data (for example, they didn’t contrast places with a ban against places without); since automobile safety tends to constantly improve over time, of course they found that fatal and injury rates improved in the post-ban period.
    Evaluating the impact of legislation prohibiting hand-held cell phone use while driving, Nikolaev, et al, published in the journal Transportation Research Part A.

  4. NHTSA puts out an annual Traffic Safety Facts on distracted driving :
    Table 3 Percentage Killed in Distraction-Affected Crashes, by Person Type, 2012 . . . Pedestrian 13% . . . Pedalcyclist 2%

    Recently in the wake of the death of DPS officer Tim Huffman due to what appears to be blatent distracted driving… and this being distracted driving awareness month; Arizona DPS release some number on distracted driving…

    First off, let me state for the record — i don’t think people should be driving while they are distracted; that being said…
    The LAB (among others of course) seem to me to tend to harp on cell phone laws as going to provide some huge safety benefit for bicyclists. empirical studies (e.g. see comment above) of cell-ban laws don’t seem to show any great benefit.

    It feels like this (laws affecting cell phones, distracted driving…) is drifting towards bike lane status. Seems like a good idea but little actual improvement. I haven’t tried to tease out any updates, i thought this Cheng Cheng study was pretty compelling; so far it seems like he hasn’t gotten it published, though…

    Azcentral Distracted Driving more deadly than war… DPS has staked out a bold position in their crackdown: “The law says, ‘A person shall not drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances, conditions and actual and potential hazards then existing.’ A reasonable speed while not looking at the road while texting is zero, Cook said.”

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