Friday, April 1, 2011

Distracted driving -- or mountains out of molehills?

2010 was another record year.  I guess they're all record years in one way or another.  Sort of like how, according to my daughter: "You are my best ... my best dad."  I've got that going for me.

But 2010 was a record year in a good way:  it was safest year ever to be driving a car.  Total traffic fatalities were 32,788 -- the lowest raw number since 1949.  Per mile, there is no comparison:  in 1949 there were over 7 deaths per 100 million miles traveled; in 2010 there was just over 1.

So we've come a long way.  But I have a question:  how can we be making such improvements in road safety at the same time we are facing the growing menace of cell phone use and texting while driving?  We have all read about how talking on a cell phone -- even hands-free -- is the equivalent to driving with a BAC of .08 ("the legal limit").  And we have all sat at a stop light and watched driver after driver motor by while talking on a cell phone.  And yet ... the objective stats show that it gets safer and safer to drive.

Much safer.  Accident rates and traffic deaths are not just on a steep long-term decline -- they're on a steep short-term decline.  In 1994, the number fatalities per 100 million miles driven was 1.73.  In 2010 the number was 1.09.  By my lawyer-math, that's a 37% decline in just 17 years -- 17 years that happen to coincide with the invention and mass proliferation of cell phones.  And it's not just fatalities and injuries that are going down -- overall crashes are way down too.  According to this government publication (see Table 2-17, page 153) "crashes" per 100 million miles driven fell 28% -- from 276 in 1994 to 198 in 2006 (latest data available). In raw numbers, crashes fell from about 6.5 million in 1994 to just under 6 million in 2006, despite many more miles driven.  (This data also includes motorcycles, cyclists, and pedestrians, I think.) 

Surely cars and roads are getting safer.  But if cell phones and texting were really such a menace, I would expect that the safety numbers would just tread water.  Instead, we continue to get safer and safer on the road, even as the crisis of "distracted driving" spreads like a cancer across the land.      

I just bought an iPhone yesterday.  Literally yesterday -- that's how far behind the times I am.  I don't have a texting plan.  I actually pull over to talk on the cell phone (sometimes).  So this isn't a personal thing.  It's a contrarian thing.  I wonder if the concern over "distracted driving" isn't just hysteria.  And even if distracted driving is a problem, I wonder if it's a problem we can handle.  After all, cell phone use in a car is productive.  The very fact that we have tolerated losing tens of thousands of lives on the roadways every year for decades shows that we are willing to trade human life for increased efficiency and productivity.  The only question is how much productivity and efficiency we need to justify this loss of life.  Ultimately, even if cell phone use in cars makes driving more dangerous, maybe we can afford the risk, since driving while using them is still safer than driving has ever been before.

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