NMA E-Newsletter #154: Will We Never Learn?

The feds are at it again. Anyone following the news last week almost certainly ran across a headline like this one from CNN.com: “NTSB recommends full ban on use of cell phones while driving.”

In the frenzy to report this story, CNN and other media outlets originally suggested that the call by the National Transportation Safety Board would not prohibit drivers from using hands-free devices. Wrong. The NTSB has called for the criminalization of drivers who deign to use any personal electronic devices (PEDs) that aren’t installed by the vehicle manufacturer.

Under this proposed prohibition – with a small “p” for the time being – cell phones, portable GPS units, MP3 players and other mobile devices presumably could not be used legally by drivers. Passengers – yes, drivers – no.

Trying to enforce such a ban would be a nightmare for both motorists and for the police. PEDs are so prevalent in current everyday life that just about every car, truck, or bus could be pulled over and the driver cited. (By the way, the use of the other type of PEDs – performance-enhancing drugs – while driving is not on the police radar, so to speak, as long as the driver is exhibiting safe control of the vehicle. Personal electronic devices? A scourge to highway travelers, at least under the NTSB’s vision of safer roads.)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated 3,092 highway fatalities in 2010 due to distracted driving. (How they were able to come up with such a number is best left as the subject of another newsletter.) NHTSA also determined that drivers in the U.S. rang up three trillion vehicle miles traveled last year. That means, according to NHTSA’s own numbers, that U.S. drivers experienced the annual equivalent of one distracted-driving fatality for every 970 million vehicle miles traveled.

Let’s break that down a little more. 970 million vehicle miles is the equivalent of 334,000 cross-country trips on the full expanse of Interstate 80, which spans 2,900 miles between Teaneck, New Jersey and San Francisco, California.

Statistically speaking, one death from distracted driving would result from all of that coast-to-coast driving. And it should be noted that NHTSA included a wide range of causes of distracted driving (beyond PEDs) in their fatality estimate: activity of vehicle passengers, adjustment of climate/entertainment controls, eating and drinking, and so on.

Yet according to NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, “This (distracted driving) is becoming the new DUI. It’s becoming epidemic.” The numbers don’t bear that out. And neither do the results of a September 2010 study by the insurance industry, at least not in terms of the most prominent target of the NTSB’s proposed ban: Texting while driving.

Much to the astonishment of the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) and its parent company, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), their researchers found that texting bans did not reduce crashes. This conclusion was reached after analyzing accident rates from four states – California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington – after texting-while-driving bans were enacted and comparing those numbers with those of neighboring states that had no texting bans during the same time period.

Don’t get us wrong. When inattentive driving results in the unsafe operation of a vehicle, highway travelers and pedestrians are put at risk. That is why the distracted driving laws already on the books in each state should be enforced, regardless of the cause of the distraction.

Adrian Lund, president of the HLDI and the IIHS, said the fact that cell phone bans did not lower accident rates, “call(s) into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes. They’re focusing on a single manifestation of distracted driving and banning it.”

That was one year ago. Many federal politicians will no doubt react to this latest call for prohibition by pressuring states to enact the sweeping NTSB proposal or face the loss of federal highway funds. It is an old trick that our senators and representatives in Washington D.C. have played many times. We must speak out and not let them diminish our driving freedoms by doing so again.

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