Monday, March 25, 2013

Cell phones while driving

As a driver, I am trying to learn why many states feel like it is so important to stop driving with a cell phone (which 100% of all drivers I know do, none of whom have been involved in an accident) yet our gun laws are the weakest in the world. I found a study here: which presents a number of large problems. It is based mostly off a 100 car study (which is a tiny sliver of a fraction of the total number of cars on the road, the people know they are being monitored, so there is no way to prove it isn't anecdotal) and is not clear on who was in this study they put so much emphasis on. Were they all biased towards the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (yes, they are actually called that) all of whose members donate to candidates' campaigns according to Open Secrets? Some of these corporations are not even American! That suggests a major conflict of interest to me.

According to Nationwide 80% of drivers report driving while using a cell phone. What percent of these drivers have actual problems in their driving that lead to an accident? I present the one large example I have been able to find in an hour's research on the subject (it is important to have large studies to avoid anecdotes which are likely to be misleading, like when you have people who know they are being monitored which will effect their patterns in an opt-in 100 car "study") below based on California drivers. While these laws are popular among large groups, there has been widespread media coverage on this issue, which could have a significant affect on people's opinions.

In the study with a much larger sample size, they say
"In the only other study to use phone records directly linked to driving, Young and Schreiner (2009) studied vehicles with OnStar equipment that included a hands-free phone. OnStar call centers record and store all hands-free calls and all airbag deployments. Airbag deployments per driver-minute were lower during hands-free call periods than during call-free periods. Young and Schreiner concluded that “for personal conversations using a hands-free embedded device the risk of an airbag crash is
somewhere in a range from a moderately lower risk to a risk near that of driving without a recent personal conversation. ... These results are not consistent with the large increase in crash risk reported in epidemiological studies using the case-crossover method [referring to the Redelmeier and
McEvoy studies summarized above]”.

While it isn't conclusive, and has a few issues, it isn't any less problematic than the 100 car study which I don't trust because I don't know who was in the study, what other problems existed while driving, potential bias in part of the participants (were they all employees of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group? It doesn't say.), and given time I will think of other potential problems. Also, by placing them in a situation where they know they are monitored their driving will be affected.

They talk about aggregate data studies and the estimated percent of crashes caused by cell phone use ranges from 2% to 25%. This is not conclusive and a large problem.

Another part of this paper is particularly interesting:

"Nikolaev at al. (2010) used county-level fatal and injury crash rates per licensed driver from 1997 to 2007 to study the effects of New York’s 2001 hand-held cell phone law. After the law, injury crash rates were lower in all 62 New York counties and significantly lower in 46; fatal crash rates were lower
in 46 counties and significantly lower in 10. The analysis did not control for other influences on crash rates over this time period, and both fatal and injury crash rates were decreasing in the pre-law period.

Kolko (2009) studied cell phone law effects using FARS data from 1997 to 2005. Cell phone laws during this period were in effect for more than 4 years in New York, 18 months in New Jersey and the District of Columbia, 
and 2 months in Connecticut. This limited experience suggested that the laws 

reduced traffic fatalities, but only in bad weather or wet road conditions, and 
the laws had no statistically significant effect on overall traffic fatalities."

These two studies are extremely important and far larger and important than a simple 100 car study where people know they are being monitored  Is it possible people are getting used to cell phones? This is uncontrolled. While this study gives us some useful data, I would be interested in if the slope changed after the law or if it stayed steady which would conclusively say that the laws have no effect. Not controlling for bad weather etc. is a major flaw that means this research is only one step in a larger process. More research is needed.

Cnet made a post on this and one commenter said:
"A cell phone is inherently no more distracting than a radio, a screaming child or, even, a thought-provoking conversation with a passenger. The actions of a few stupid individuals (whom probably have the same loss-of-control setting their cruise control) should not be grounds for penalizing an entire population."

Studies need to control for these statistics of radios or screaming children and the paper I am reading from the Governor Highway Safety Association doesn't address that problem. Most papers I have found don't.

We need a new study before our governments continue their laws in favor of bluetooth, I would propose a study like this to be as wide-ranging and inexpensive as possible. It needs to be a longitudinal study across the United States at a minimum stretching back as far as possible. We need to look at the number of traffic accidents and fatalities reported in as many areas as possible over a long period of time, and find what percent of recent traffic citations involve cell phone use, and if there has been an increase since driving with cell phones has come into play relative to the increased number of drivers on the road. If it isn't adjusted for population increase it will be completely useless. This will tell us the following:
  1. Do people get in more accidents today with cell phones and Bluetooth than before?
  2. What percent of accidents involve phones?
  3. What percent of accidents involving phones had other factors at play, bad weather, screaming kids, etc.?
  4. Do Bluetooth laws have any substantial effect?
  5. What is the impact of cell phone use on people of different ages?
  6. What other distractions are in the car at the time of impact and what is the relative frequency of these causing accidents compared to cell phones? E.g. children, radios, talking to passengers etc.
  7. What is the weather when the accident occurs?
This will tell us conclusively whether there is any effect of laws on cell phones, which the paper I link to at the top says is a major problem with the current research. If we are going to make laws we need to have conclusive evidence from a large sample that isn't aware it is being monitored to make the best possible decision which despite all the laws hasn't been done yet. This is most easily done through police reports. has some really good information, and in it demonstrates a hard statistic that out of 491,000 crashes in 6 months in California only 600 or 0.12% were attributed to cell phone use. That is insignificant in my opinion. The other references which are railing against cell phone use are absent of hard statistics. Out of 23 million drivers, only 0.000026% of drivers in California had accidents regarding cell phone use assuming they were all instate. Considering the other statistic I found which shows that 80% of all drivers use cell phones while driving, this percent of total drivers getting into accidents while driving is completely unremarkable. I bet other factors of the same frequency or higher could be found regarding accidents, namely bad weather. This hints we should outlaw driving in bad weather to keep people safe, which of course is absurd. Most papers I find don't give such clear numbers on the percent of accidents attributed directly to cell phones.

A point I wish to make is that surveys do routinely show that a majority of people interpret cell phones as dangerous, but a survey of Europeans during the 1300s on the shape of the Earth would conclusively show that the Earth must be flat because most people agreed on it, which didn't make them right. There are many more examples I can give where a large survey of people would give inaccurate or downright incorrect results. When making policy, leaders need to focus on the most unbiased ways of gathering information. Given the tremendous amount of coverage this issue has received over a long number of years stating how it is dangerous, it is not surprising that large numbers of people are convinced it is dangerous, even though the evidence I have found is to date inconclusive or potentially anecdotal.

This isn't the first time many people have made claims about cell phones being extremely dangerous. Back in the 1990s many people were very worried about them causing cancer based on results from numerous small, inconclusive studies that were heavily publicized; similar to the studies showing how cell phone use is bad for driving. The FDA did an extensive thorough study in 2000 which then conclusively proved that cell phones have a negligible effect on cancer. I feel that this is similar to cell phones and driving, large media coverage on a new tool using small inconclusive studies that don't control for other variables, ignoring wide studies like the California study I cited.

The only thing I have been able to conclusively prove looking at evidence regarding this issue is that there is a massive conflict of interest in our government in forcing people to use Bluetooth while driving given the large amount of money coming into their campaigns. Everything else is inconclusive and needs further research before more laws are made on something we clearly don't understand. Before making a law against all people driving with cell phones we need to prove that it really has an impact in a large study. I would be in favor of making laws on ticketing people who get into accidents due to cell phone use, so that less experienced drivers who are more easily distracted have an incentive to be safe, at least until we have sufficient research from at least one large rigorous study to determine the true effect of cell phone use on driving.

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