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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pierre Lemieux: Don't phone and drive?

This week in his column "Don't phone and drive?," Pierre Lemieux explores the arguments underlying the prohibitions on hand-held cell phone use while driving which now exist in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Québec. Pierre discovers that new evidence contradicts and therefore weakens the intuitive conclusions that cell-phone use increases the incidence of accidents or that bans on hand-held cell phone use are effective at reducing them. In scrutinizing the logic and evidence behind these sorts of nanny state regulations, Pierre concludes that there is no benefit to imposing them nor any limit to how far this sort of thinking could be taken to restrict our personal liberties. An excerpt:

Many reasons could explain why drivers’ cell phones do not increase the net number of accidents even though they appear to be distracting. Individuals who face new constraints adjust their behaviour so as to maintain their preferred levels of risk--what has been called the “Peltzman effect”. A 1975 study by economist Sam Peltzman suggested that automobile safety regulations (like compulsory seat belts) do not save lives because the drivers are made to feel safer and will therefore drive less carefully. The same could happen with cell phones. Another phenomenon to consider is that cell phone conversations may actually forestall accidents due to boredom and driver fatigue.

Similarly, individuals with hand-free, as opposed to hand-held, cell phones may stay longer on the phone, get into more animated conversations, and get as distracted as with hand-held phones.


Posted by westernstandard on April 8, 2008 | Permalink


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Hmm, speaking of hand-held cell phones and distracted drivers: On my way home from work yesterday, driving East on Dundas St. West (that's Toronto), I noticed an idiot in the oncoming lane playing chicken with a streetcar. He came darting out from the inside lane, narrowly missing being ploughed by the metal TTC monster.

I thought, "What a jerk!" and noticed that he was talking on a cell phone. "Figures," I thought. Then a second later--you know how it takes the brain a nano-second to process a familiar face seen out of context?--I thought, "OMG, THAT LOOKS LIKE GERARD KENNEDY!" "Figures."

Wouldn't that be Kennedy's 'hood? And as for out of context: Where's Kennedy been? We haven't heard from him or seen him in a donkey's age. I'm kind of amazed I recognized him at all--if it was him, of course.

Posted by: batb | 2008-04-08 5:25:30 AM

He`s probably been hiding out ever since he inflicted the Liberals with Dion , one of the dumbest moves in political history.

Posted by: daveh | 2008-04-08 6:29:10 AM

1. If you want to read the study by Saurabh Bhargava and Vikram Pathania that Pierre references, it is called "Driving under the (Cellular) Influence: The Link between Cell Phone Use and Vehicle Crashes" and can be downloaded by anyone by clicking here: http://vikram.pathania.googlepages.com/vikram_jm_paper1.pdf

2. If the research is right, it would seem that the (non)effect of the new Canadian laws would be easy to measure. Check the relative inclrease/decrease of accidents from some period of time before the law took effect to the same period of time after and compare the relative inclrease/decrease in Canadian jurisdictions that changed cell phone use laws to ones that did not. It should be pretty easy to see from this what, if any, effect the law has.

3. The idea that the "Peltzman effect" might be playing a role is a bit of a catch-22. If it *IS* playing a role, then it seems that the correct belief that cell phone use will distract drivers (thus leading to more accidents) is being compensated for by more careful driving. But if that compensation is sufficient to eliminate the extra risk, then eventually people might come to believe that cell phone use does *NOT* increase accident rates (as the Bhargava and Pathania study shows and as Pierre argues), thus they might stop compensating, causing accident rates to rise. It seems people must continue to believe that cell phones *DO* increase the risk in order for them to not *ACTUALLY* result in a net increase of risk. Weird.

4. You can get "The Economist" in audio form? Cool!

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-04-08 7:28:35 AM

I've been talking on the phone while driving since the early 80's with no accidents. I've put on around 2 million km. There are people who shouldn't do it. An ex-girlfriend could not concentrate when someone called her about business. I once saw her come to a full stop in the middle of highway 1, trying to remember some detail of a job when a client phoned her.

Some companies, such as Husky Energy, have policies against phone use while in motion. There are tradeoffs to these policies. Safety supervisors can't be reached while they are driving, so accidents or oil spills might go unreported for an unacceptable length of time.

It's a hard issue to take sides on for me. I tell my kids not to talk while driving, but when I want to get ahold of them, I sort of expect them to answer the phone. The handheld is probably not as safe as the hands free.

There are so many distractions already, so if cellphone use is banned I won't cry over it.

Posted by: dp | 2008-04-08 7:38:02 AM

I'm sure even Sam Peltzman can figure out how to plug in a hands free headset microphone, and Husky can set up a special ringtone for life & death emergency calls relayed through a switchboard. "Hey Ricky, if you hear 'Song of Destruction' by Leonard Cohen, pull over and take the call, ok?"

$5 for the headset. You can get them at drug stores.
Husky can probably get a bulk deal on ringtones.


Posted by: Pattern Recognition | 2008-04-08 8:12:14 AM

Husky has banned all phone use, including headsets. It would be a simple problem to solve if it was handheld vs handsfree.

The issue of distraction from an outside source being a safety concern is legitimate. Some say it's no more dangerous than having a conversation with a passenger. Others say a passenger would be able to modify the conversation if traffic conditions warrant it. Obviously, a passenger would have sense enough to pipe down if he saw a bus coming toward him.

Some of us have driven so many miles under poor driving conditions it's become second nature. I used to drive a standard transmission, drink coffee, talk on the phone, and dodge log trucks. I was lucky to have made it through without a scratch. Nowadays a 4X4 is so much like a luxury car people don't need the same driving skills. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, ice radials, and so on, have really improved your chances of making it to your destination. Just the same, you might consider paying more attention to the road. They still don't drive themselves.

Posted by: dp | 2008-04-08 8:33:05 AM

Safety statistics be damned, safety nazis will next be outlawing listening to the radio, definitely banning boom boxes, compulsory helmets inside vehicles along with fire-resistant space suits, banning motorcycles entirely and mandatory installation of every safety device known to man. Public transit will be the only affordable option in urban centres, which is after all, their goal. Interesting that buses and trains still don't have seat belts. hmmmmmm.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2008-04-08 11:14:00 AM

John Chittick is spot on. These control nazis are not interested in research, facts or truth. They are determined to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else regardless.

If we lived in a free society (and that includes the Americans by the way) where common sense prevailed, we would see none of this rubbish. Accidents are mostly caused by negligence and a proper investigation could determine if it were due to the driver talking on a hand-held cell phone or due to the driver talking to passengers, or due to the driver being distracted by the radio or whatever. This like the ridiculous helmet law, seat-belt law and all the others should cause serious alarm. Yet we continue skipping merrily along the road to serfdom without any further thought.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-04-08 1:33:01 PM

I agree Alain - and I often wonder if we Canadians are ever going to be pushed to the edge of our 'tolerance' for being bullied by special interest groups who are smaller and nastier and fight dirty. I remember my Grandad shaking his head in wonder that Lenin could CONTROL the millions in the soviet empire with less than a million thugs (my Grandad lived before Canada had become a nation of yes men).

I hope that their is still hope for Canada.

Posted by: jema54j | 2008-04-09 1:48:12 AM

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