Saturday, October 26, 2013

Real statistics on cell phones and driving compared to other issues

The percentages used in this paper are the probability of a single individual being involved in one of these scenarios, so the number of incidents/American population (310,000,000 with two significant digits).

385 people (1.2x10^-4% of Americans) die every year from accidents involving cell phones (not necessarily being caused by cell phones). 21,000 people (6.8x10^-3% of Americans) were injured in accidents involving cell phones (again, regardless of whether they were the actual cause). 660,000 people (0.2% of Americans) use a cell phone at any point in the day.

So, 385/(660,000*365) is an incidence rate of 1.6x10^-4% chance of being involved in a cell phone related death while using a cell phone while the chance of being struck by lightning is 1.4x10^-4%. The probability of being in an accident where the driver is using a cell phone is 8.7x10^-3%, . But since that first number is far higher than the real probability of being caught in an accident since it is not a daily rate but any point in the day. It is probably closer to that number divided by 16 (assuming we sleep for 8 hours in a day) yields a more likely rate of being caught at 1x10^-5% which means you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to have your use of a cell phone lead to a fatality. The chance of an accident is 5.4x10^-4%, only 5 times more likely than being struck by lightning.

These numbers are not very significant when compared to other problems. 40,000 people or 1.3x10^-2% of Americans die from antibiotic resistant bacteria every year, over 10 times the probability of being injured, and over 100 times the probability of being killed in an accident involving (but I must stress not necessarily being cause by) a cell phone. 11,078 people were killed by firearms in homicide in 2010, 3.6x10^-3% of Americans, 30 times the number of people killed in accidents involving a cell phone. 17,500 people died from from AIDS in America, 5.6x10^-3% of Americans. 38,285 people died from suicide in 2011, a rate of 0.012%, 1000x the probability of dying from an accident involving a cell phone. Kidney disease killed 45,731 people in 2011, 0.015% of Americans. There are 8 more causes higher than Kidney disease. The number one killer was heart disease with roughly 600,000 deaths in 2011, or 0.19% of Americans, over 10,000x the probability of dying with a cell phone.

We love to think cell phones are dangerous, that they kill people with cancer, accidents, and probably Big Foot, and that by just purchasing and using a bluetooth our rate of being in trouble diminishes. However, it just doesn't stack up to other causes of death and the rate of injury doesn't come close to the large killers. There has been a lot of press attention and nothing else is really notable. If we really wanted to make an impact to our death rate we would work on making guns harder to acquire, increase funding to research to reduce the deaths from illness, and cell phones don't even make the radar compared to other causes. I would predict the incidence rate of driving while talking on a cell phone and getting into an accident is not significantly higher with other car activities such as talking with a passenger, listening to the radio, adjusting the thermostat, or other things that you do while you are driving, which means this does not pass the placebo test and the issue should be discarded as a witch hunt.

I don't join witch hunts, and this fear of cell phones is a witch hunt based off of exaggerated data. I just can't get excited on this issue after seeing the data.

Also remember that there is a lot of money to be made with Bluetooths.



  1. Interesting. What got you going on this thread? Let's get talk about effective presentation style. Data collection, you have mastered!

    1. I saw the Mother Jones article and was interested in the numbers they were giving, assuming the data is accurate it shows that this story blown completely out of proportion, and I had to write about it compared to other threats to show how we need to refocus our priorities and how much tax payer money we are wasting.