Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“When you’re behind the wheel, there’s no such thing as a small distraction.”

Says Chuck Husak, an ad man, in this New York Times article about the tolls of distracted driving.

But if there as no such thing as a small distraction, then that means there is no such thing as a big distraction either.  All distractions are equal.

Of course, everyone knows that that there in fact is such a thing as a small distraction behind the wheel.  For example:
  • My ear itches.
  • "The Long and Winding Road" comes on the radio, forcing me to change the station.
  • The sun is in my eyes.
  • Etc.
Conclusion:  all distractions are not equal.  Some are big, some are small.

The question is whether talking on a cell phone, or texting, is a big or small distraction.  Mr. Husak wants to convince us that both are big distractions by denying that there is even such a thing as a small distraction.  As my itchy ear proves, that is false.  When people use that kind of easily disprovable rhetoric, it gets my defenses up.  It puts me in contrarian mode.

I blogged about distracted driving the other day, in the context of the happy news that the traffic fatality rate reached an all-time low in 2010.  I asked whether cell phones and texting-while-driving can really be such a menace when it is getting so much safer to drive.

Now this latest article in the New York Times cites the National Safety Council as estimating that 28% of all car crashes are caused by cell phones or texting.  But, interestingly, the accident rate has already decreased by almost 35% in the cell phone era (since 1990).  (Note that we are talking about crashes here, not fatalities -- so increased seat belt use is irrelevant.)  The NSC thinks there would be an additional 28% decrease if the cell phone had never been invented.  That would mean fewer than half the crashes per mile in 2006 than occurred in 1990 (see Table 2-17 at link).  Is that credible?  Do we really believe that, except for the invention of the cell phone, it would be more than twice as safe to drive now than it was just 20 years ago?

I don't buy it. 

Here's my theory.  Driving is very boring, and people are capable of paying only so much attention to it.  Cell phones aren't the source of our distraction; they are its object.  If not for cell phones, people would be distracted by other things, or would just end up daydreaming.  In fact, maybe cell phones keep the roads safe by keeping people from daydreaming -- or by distracting them enough to keep them awake!


  1. That theory seems to hold some water. People are always going to be distracted by something while driving.
    Young drivers are not as good at dealing with distractions as older drivers. The primary distraction of young drivers these days is cell phones, or some other technological device. That is probably the primary reason cell phones are currently being demonized.
    After I got my license I started driving my parents old Mercury Lynx. The car was so old and crappy it only had an AM radio. To rectify this musical atrocity I put a boom box in the passenger seat so I could listen to tapes while driving. A week after I got my license I was messing with that boom box and crashed that Lynx.
    I'm still not a very good driver, but I haven't had a crash in quite a while. All my accidents were as a young driver, and all because I was distracted by something. If we eliminate cell phones while driving there will always be crying kids in the back seat, food to eat, pretty girls on the sidewalk to look at, or your afore mentioned daydreaming.

  2. Just saw this article which relates to the above topic and lawyers. Although this article is about traffic deaths, not crashes.

  3. Thanks for the link, Adam C. Sorry, your second comment was tagged as spam for some reason (the first comment ever to be so market), which is why it didn't appear.

    I'm happy to give the trial lawyers (and Ralph Nader) their fair share of the credit for safer cars. They (we) are like the vultures circling overhead who remind carmakers not to take the shortcut across the desert...

    As for your first comment, I actually almost put that anecdote (about you crashing your car) into the post when I wrote it!

  4. Your favorite PI lawyerApril 26, 2011 at 4:53 PM

    I'm sort of shocked that the only statistics/studies you deem fit to review are essentially aggregate crash data.

    I agree that there are large and small distractions in part because of the many studies showing that texting while driving is hugely different than other distractions. See, e.g., the Virginia Tech study that was widely publicized about a year ago: http://www.vtti.vt.edu/PDF/7-22-09-VTTI-Press_Release_Cell_phones_and_Driver_Distraction.pdf. The best way to tell whether something is a big or small distraction is quite clearly to design scientifically rigorous studies, which has been done, again and again, rather than speculate about trends in aggregate crash data. Without even addressing targeted studies, this post is reckless.

  5. I was hoping my vulture comment would prod you into action!

    To the extent that my post can be construed to encourage people to text while driving, let me explicitly renounce that. Texting while driving, or composing emails, is unacceptably dangerous. The study you link to concludes that it is almost 25 times as dangerous as "non-distracted driving," at least among truck drivers. Notably, the study found that merely talking on the cell phone (whether hands-free or not, apparently) is not any more dangerous than staring at the road with full concentration.

    But -- since texting is so very very dangerous, and the crash and fatality statistics are so very very good, one conclusion presents itself: people are not doing very much texting while driving. So I stand by my assertion that this is not a public health menace. Mature drivers value their own lives enough not to text while driving. (Immature drivers (like teens) are probably another story...)

    You criticize this kind of reasoning as "speculat[ing] about trends in aggregate crash data." But:

    1) The VTTI report you link to speculates in precisely the same way: "Using simple fatal crash and phone use statistics, if talking on cell phones was as risky as driving while drunk, the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50% in the last decade instead of remaining largely unchanged."

    2) If it were not for speculating about trends in data, blogs would not exist.

  6. Your Favorite PI LawyerApril 27, 2011 at 10:31 AM

    I must be slow but you should have looked at studies comparing various distractions: http://tinyurl.com/6gxb7oa

    Perhaps people are not texting while driving precisely because of the efforts to publicize/criminalize the activity as a "public health menace" in the same way that drunk driving campaigns/laws have diminished drunk driving.

    I stand by my position that safer roads are the result of many, many factors and that this clear trend toward safety is not at odds with the proposition that society should discourage one of the most dangerous activities to do while driving.

    Last point: how much efficiency and productivity is to be gained by allowing texting while driving (an issue raised in prior post) and is there a safer way to get the same increase in efficiency? To me, not much, and yes.

  7. 1) I agree that you are slow.

    2) Why should I have looked at studies comparing various distractions? The thesis of my post was that there are different levels of danger for different kinds of distraction -- in response to a New York Times article that implicitly and explicitly argued that all distractions are equally dangerous. So looking at more studies would only have confirmed that I was right, apparently. Your link makes me quite glad I didn't waste my time reading any other articles or doing any other google searches because all they show is that there are big distractions and there are little distractions; that lumping all distractions together is stupid. I knew that. I said that.

    3) By the way, don't mistake this blog post (or any of my blog posts) for a research article. Again, it was a response to a specific article -- see that quote in the title, and the link in the first sentence? And I'm a little confused by the stridency of your opposition because you explicitly agree with my fundamental criticism of that article. But I do appreciate the substance (if perhaps not the tone!) of your commentary because it allows us to explore the issue more deeply than I did in the blog post that I drafted, half-drunk, in fifteen minutes.

    4) So where do we disagree? I'm not positive, but I think you feel I'm giving short shrift to the danger of texting. I tried to renounce that in my last comment, but maybe I kind of proceeded to unrenounce it. So let me rerenounce it: texting is intolerably dangerous while driving. I don't have any problem with public health campaigns against it, and they are likely worthwhile. I still suspect, however, that the actual problem is overblown. Whether it is because of the campaigns you mention or the rational self-preservation instinct I mention (or a combination), I just don't think that much texting-while-driving is going on. (Have I just dererenounced?)

    5) The full disclosure of where I'm coming from is that I have always found the assertion that talking on a cell phone while driving is equally dangerous as drunk driving to be totally ridiculous. The VTTI study you linked to pointedly debunks this assertion - and explicitly criticizes the whole field of "simulated driving" studies (on which almost all media articles related to distracted driving rely). My recent posts on distracted driving would be stronger (and perhaps would have avoided your ire) if I had concentrated only on the "talking on the cell phone" issue and excluded any mention of texting, because it does seem like I'm lumping them together when I shouldn't be.

    6) You could argue that lying about the danger of talking on cell phones accomplishes some broader public good by discouraging people from using cell phones in the car at all, thus preventing them from giving into the temptation to text. But on that score I stand on the numbers -- people seem to be doing a pretty good job of resisting. Anecdotally, I can't say I've ever seen another driving texting. (But of course, I am always completely focused on my own driving, so...)

    7) Finally, you ask how much efficiency is to be gained by texting. My answer: not enough. People shouldn't do it. The efficiency question is more interesting, I think, for cell phones in general. Being able to talk on the cell phone while driving does increase efficiency. (E.g., while I was clerking, my judge held a TRO hearing on his way to Duluth!) The question is whether the increased risk (such as it is) is worth the efficiency gain. It's a sort of abstract but empirical question. To me it's a close question but my civil libertarianism breaks the tie -- I don't want to give cops more reasons to pull people over on whim.

  8. Your Favorite PI LawyerApril 27, 2011 at 6:04 PM


    1. Unnecessary but I did bring it up.

    2. The comment was meant to address what I took to be the point of both posts - a lot of distracted driver stuff is alarmist and is not supported by the broad trend of dramatically safer roads. You seemed to take issue with the "all distractions are the same" reasoning because it is clearly wrong and exemplifies alarmist distracted driving rhetoric. I just tried (poorly as it turned out) to point out that the paradox you articulated -- increasingly safer roads during a massive increase in cell phone use -- need not be resolved by the conclusion that cell phone use is not all that dangerous. See 4 below.

    3.I don't. My comment was an immediate gut response to scanning the two posts. I thought you liked stridency. Sorry for the tone.

    4. I disagree that one can conclude anything about cell phone safety from the safe road statistics you present. To make such a conclusion one should also look at scientifically rigorous studies of the activity (talking, texting, hands free talking...)

    5. My BMW comes with an integrated hands free system and I love it. I find it efficient and relatively safe, even when drunk.

    6. I have seen people texting, done it a couple times (stupidly, see number 1) and have represented people horribly life changingly injured by texters (interestingly, the defendants in those cases were teens). Not sure that the numbers capture the increase in texting as younger people age and drive and as older folks start texting.

    7. The key here is clear, common sense rules: those with BMWs and bluetooth should talk as much as possible; plebeians without should not use their cells while driving; no texting for anybody.

    ps. I have not actually talked while drunk but attempted humor in an effort to alter the offensive tone of prior posts.

  9. The tone was not offensive. I was just joshing you.


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