“It’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year…”

by Walter Olson on December 19, 2011

Might it be time to abolish the National Transportation Safety Board? It’s supposed to serve as an authoritative source on the causes of accidents, but last week its chief, calling for a nationwide ban on cellphone use by drivers, was not just non-authoritative but actively misleading. I explain in a new post at Cato at Liberty (& Instapundit, Balko, Stoll, Adler).

More on misleading government public health advisories here.

{ 39 comments }

1 Jim Collins 12.19.11 at 2:24 pm

While we are at it, how about abolishing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as well?

2 James 12.19.11 at 2:51 pm

So, let’s see if I have the logic here correctly Walter:

You believe that because overall automobile deaths are decreasing, there is no need for consideration of laws against mobile phone usage in cars, a demonstrably dangerous activity. moreover, we should de-establish the NTSB (after the safest year in aviation history thanks in no small part due to the NTSB) because while motor vehicle deaths have been decreasing, clearly they could have in no way had anything to do with it since, apparently, they are a federal agency. according to you, if such regulation is to be considered, it must be at a local or state level because, and here I have trouble following any logic whatsoever other than generic libertarian any central-government whining even though every other nation in the world that I know realizes that unified national driver licensing and regulation makes sense on any number of levels so obvious that I’d be embarrassed for you if I’d be asked to list them here.

I’ve seen a lot of through-the-looking-glass libertarianism from you over the years, Walter, but this particular piece strains all credulity. I’m not trying to excuse the NTSB from using a misleading statistic – that’s clearly wrong – but you took that fumbled football and tried to run down some rabbit hole with it.

3 Walter Olson 12.19.11 at 3:08 pm

>”no need for consideration of laws against mobile phone usage in cars”

Actually, my posts have refrained from categorically opposing all such laws, and have noted the higher relative risk of some types of phone use such as texting. I have instead been critical of the NTSB’s absolutist insistence that even handsfree calls be banned across the board.

>”every other nation in the world that I know realizes that unified national driver licensing and regulation makes sense on any number of levels so obvious that I’d be embarrassed for you…”

Then your quarrel here is with virtually every lawmaker of both parties in the U.S., since none of them are calling for such a national system, nor is the NTSB itself (which aims to influence but not supplant state traffic regulation).

4 kimsch 12.19.11 at 3:37 pm

There was recently an accident locally where a driver was speeding and ran a red light and his truck t-boned a Lincoln, killing one ten-year-old twin and severely injuring his brother. No mention of distraction in this case, but in 2009 at the same intersection a woman who was painting her fingernails killed another driver when she hit her. No cell phone use there either.

Banning cell phone use in cars won’t stop it from happening. And banning cell phone use in cars won’t stop those types of accidents either.

Drivers who cause accidents resulting in deaths due to distractions of any kind need to be charged with negligent homicide. Let current laws and consequences do their work.

5 Ron Miller 12.19.11 at 3:44 pm

The whole libertarian debate is beyond my pay grade

My point,though, is that I think accidents and their severity are decreasing because they are building cars better than they used to. It creates, in my opinion, crosswinds, that fail to underscore the harm being cause by cell phones.

Certainly, I disagree with Walter that it is not an epidemic. Statistics are dry but we are talking about 32,885 people. I think society is willing to sacrifice these people because driving cars at fast speeds is convenient. We are all complicit in this trade-off and maybe that is okay. But even if we refuse to change speed limits or make car safer, we still should be trying to do as many creative things as possible to continue to bring the death toll – this epidemic – down.

(If that stat is not enough to get you excited, consider this: make the roads safer and lots of lawyers will be out of business.)

6 Ron Miller 12.19.11 at 3:47 pm

You are right Kimsch. There are accidents that don’t involve texting or cell phones. But I’m not sure what this tell us, exactly.

7 James 12.19.11 at 5:12 pm

Walter: “Then your quarrel here is with virtually every lawmaker of both parties in the U.S., since none of them are calling for such a national system, nor is the NTSB itself (which aims to influence but not supplant state traffic regulation).”

Yes, it certainly is. But that’s another kettle of fish. It’s political suicide these days to suggest that centralized anything can indeed do things better, even when in many cases it is self-evidently true. While I have no numbers to back this up, so flame away if you will, but state and local government in the USA represent far greater obstacles to safe and efficient commerce than the federal government does, and, as is the case with most bureaucracies, they have shown time and time again an inability to have market forces pound them into “natural” efficiency – why, for example, do RI and CT not merge their DMVs thus eliminating the duplication of a costly bureaucracy? How rare is the case of a state simply passing legislation that simply says “our rule for X will, unless further amended, be a copy of the same set of rules from state Y including any and all amendments made in state Y let those bastards figure out what works for us.”

Just ask my friends who run an ambulance business in the PA-NJ-DE tri-state area, where each state has mutually incompatible requirements for the carriage of certain equipment (equipment which is mandated in one state is forbidden in another, even though the tasks each ambulance performs is identical in all states). These local regulations clearly exist only to stifle competition. But what lawmaker would risk his neck and his constituency to suggest the obvious – that such regulations should be nationalized? What is the mechanism for localities to even propose this?

8 Scott Jacobs 12.19.11 at 5:58 pm

“Certainly, I disagree with Walter that it is not an epidemic. Statistics are dry but we are talking about 32,885 people. I think society is willing to sacrifice these people because driving cars at fast speeds is convenient. We are all complicit in this trade-off and maybe that is okay. But even if we refuse to change speed limits or make car safer, we still should be trying to do as many creative things as possible to continue to bring the death toll – this epidemic – down. ”

Well that certainly is some fine hyperbole, but it ignores basic logic.

If you make something illegal, you do not magically cause it to no longer exist (see: War of Drugs). Texting while driving is illegal in Missouri, Illinois, and countless other states, and yet people still do it.

The NTSB was deliberately misleading as to the cause of fatal accidents, and it was done – I believe – to further Sectretary LaHood’s desire to make cellphone use in cars impossible. Anyone ELSE remember his little test balloon of installing cellphone blockers inside all cars?

Look, I know that 32,885 sounds like a lot of people, but when you compare it to the number of people driving (I’ll be kind and assume that to be a number equal to only HALF the number of licensed passenger vehicles on the road as of 2007), you come away with a shocking number of .026 (rounded up) percent.

I’m sorry, but I refuse to increase the government’s control for such a statistically insignificant number of people.

I mean, a handful of people burn down their homes frying the Thansgiving turkey every year. Should we outlaw that too?

9 Scott Jacobs 12.19.11 at 6:00 pm

Oh, and if you ever get the chance to meet him in person, ask Secretary LaHood about the light pole the city of Peoria won’t bother to replace across from his driveway.

No lie. Thing got taken out TWICE.

10 Mannie 12.19.11 at 6:48 pm

I recall reading that a couple of areas that enacted texting bans experienced an increase in accidents due to texting, because texters did it furtively, increasing their “eyes off road” time.

Unintended consequences is a bear.

11 Scott 12.19.11 at 7:32 pm

As someone who rides a motorcycle I can see a lot of what drivers are up to. Yes they are fracking around with their cell phones far more than they should be. Yes it is dangerous and for more than just the driver. So it should be illegal. It aint rocket surgery.

Too bad prosecutors punt on these laws all the time. Far easier to go for the DUI with quantitative evidence than to spend time proving the murderous texter was texting while driving.

12 kimsch 12.19.11 at 7:35 pm

Ron Miller, Scott Jacobs did a nice job of answering for me.

13 gasman 12.19.11 at 8:29 pm

Scott, why not tell us the answer, or point to a web page.

“Oh, and if you ever get the chance to meet him in person, ask Secretary LaHood about the light pole the city of Peoria won’t bother to replace across from his driveway.

No lie. Thing got taken out TWICE.”

14 Scott Jacobs 12.19.11 at 11:25 pm

Nah… His reaction to someone knowing that his wife is apparently unaware of how to use a rearview mirror would be too priceless…

15 Scott Jacobs 12.20.11 at 12:16 am

Although, now that I think about it…

Maybe she’s on the phone a lot, and so Secretary LaHood assumes she was on the phone while pulling out of the driveway…

That would certainly explain his hate of cellphones and driving…

16 gitarcarver 12.20.11 at 1:33 am

There are several things going on here. First, people are trying to make a completely safe world. That won’t happen, but people keep trying.

The question has to be “to what extent do you want to go?”

Some in this thread appear to believe that any regulation that may save a life is a good one.

According to the NTSB, in 2009 there were 4,462 motorcycle fatalities in the US. (More than allegedly killed by cell phone distractions.) Given the number of riders and rider miles compared to cars, the risks of riding a motorcycle are high. Therefore, we should ban all motorcycles. The things are too risky.

But it is the cars that cause the vast majority of motorcycle accidents, and when coupled with the 4,972 people killed by cars that are pedestrians, riding a bike, etc, clearly cars are more dangerous to the public than cell phones distractions. Let’s ban cars.

In 2009, 6,670 passengers were killed while riding in a car. Clearly riding in a car is more dangerous than texting or talking on a cell phone. It is time to consider banning of passengers in cars.

There comes a point in time where you have to sit there and think “what are we doing?” Are laws making us safer? The answer is probably “no.”

People will break a law based on whether they feel they will get caught vs. the benefit they receive from breaking the law. The police can’t and won’t catch speeders and now we are going to ask them to stop people talking on a cell phone? Even ones that are hands free and voice operated?

Yeah, good luck with that making a dent in fatalities.

When I get in a car, I put on a seat belt not because the law says I should, but because growing up my dad took me out and showed me how not wearing a seat belt could kill me. He then reminded me that someday I would have some “little filly” in the seat next to me that I would care about. It isn’t because of a law that I wear a seat belt all the time, it was the knowledge my father imparted to me.

The same is going to be true with cell phones and texting. Until people are taught and convinced of the dangers of holding a cell phone and texting, people won’t change.

Mandating something won’t really make a difference because people aren’t reasoned and educated into compliance. They will see any type of law as another intrusion into their lives and their choices.

What makes this even more troubling is part of what I believe Mr. Olsen is saying is that if the idea of banning cell phones and texting is such a great idea and one that can be clearly understood by the public, why did the NTSB have to lie and fudge the figures? Why did the accident in their report not conclusively say that texting was the cause of the fatal accident? If out of all the accidents that were supposedly caused by texting and talking on a cell phone, the one that you are using to prove your case to the public is one where the investigators aren’t sure of the cause, you’ve made either a weak case or no case at all.

If the government wants the public to follow the laws, they have to make sense to the public – not just “we say so” or “everyone knows that.”

Until people are taught the dangers and not just told to blindly follow the law, you’ll never change people’s behavior.

17 Anna 12.20.11 at 3:13 am

I sincerely wish people in general and lawmakers specifically would get over the fantastic notion that making something illegal makes it stop. Murder has been illegal since the dawn of civilization and it hasn’t stopped. All a law signifies is that if you do the illegal thing society is willing to fine, beat, cage, and ultimately murder you if resist. Sorry I am NOT willing to fine, beat, cage, or murder anyone over using a cell phone in a car. No lives will be saved, but an inordinate amount of lives will be ruined because no one has learned the lesson of King Canute.

18 John Burgess 12.20.11 at 4:12 am

I saw an interesting–because different–read-end collision today, caused by cellphone use.

Neither driver was on the phone. Instead, a female bicyclist was busy arguing on her cellphone (I could hear her voice three cars away) and distractedly rode off the sidewalk, against the light, in front of a car moving through the intersection. That car’s driver hit the brakes and avoided hitting her. The car behind, however, was following a bit too close (yes, his own violation of traffic laws) and rammed him.

For their efforts, they got a dirty look from the bicyclist and whatever headaches they’ll get from the police and their insurance companies.

19 Ron Miller 12.20.11 at 10:07 am

I disagree with most of what has been said here. But people are making many reasonable comments (the light pole in Peoria I don’t understand what you are talking about). Ultimately, laws do increase awareness and I think that helps decrease what it is you are trying to stop (although Mannie’s admonition about the law of unintended consequences should always be kept in mind).

I agree the world will never be completely safe. I disagree that because this is so, we should stop trying. And we are making a difference, our roads are getting safer.

20 LisaMarie 12.20.11 at 10:30 am

Why not better enforcement of the laws we have? I think of driving like this: you’re walking down the sidewalk in front of me, and I get impatient with how slow you’re moving. I pull out my completely legal, licensed handgun and wave it at you while yelling and cussing at you to move out of my way. I don’t intend to shoot you; I just want to scare you into moving. It goes off and shoots you. I can’t exactly claim it was an accident and I didn’t mean to hurt you so I should just get a ticket and move on. Everyone would see me, rightly, as a psycho and a danger to others. But I see that kind of driving, and that kind of attitude toward driving, every day. Come down hard on the consequences of people’s choices instead of trying to ban every individual behavior.

21 BobN 12.20.11 at 10:49 am

I take the following as 2 important axioms when considering proposals such as the NTSB’s:

1. When someone says “There ought to be a law…”, (at least) 95 out of 100 times they are wrong.

2. You can’t legislate against stupidity.

22 Scott 12.20.11 at 10:53 am

At the very last when I ride my motorcycle I am the one taking the risk.

Would it be negligent for an employer to allow someone to operate a forklift while texting? What if your surgeon was yapping on his cell during an operation? Maybe the guy that trims your tree should not be texting while running the wood chipper?

Oh but cars weighing several tons and traveling 70+ mph are sacrosanct and it’s time for us to pull our libertarian hat on tight and argue against regulation.

23 Ed 12.20.11 at 12:49 pm

If you are going to criminalize one form of distraction, why not all? No talking, radio, coffee, children, scratching, or scenery. Place the driver in a soundproof (to the rest of the vehicle) bubble where all they have to do is focus entirely on driving.

Fatigue is also a factor in distraction. So maybe a timer that only allows for so many minutes/hours of operation.

We can just close all of the drive thru windows. Don’t want to be encouraging any distractions.

Rip down the billboards too. Distracting. All business signage should be black lettering on white background, so as to not be distracting.

24 Ed 12.20.11 at 12:50 pm

“At the very last when I ride my motorcycle I am the one taking the risk.”

So following that logic, I am only hurting myself if I don’t wear a seatbelt, therefore it should not be mandated.

25 gitarcarver 12.20.11 at 1:49 pm

At the very last when I ride my motorcycle I am the one taking the risk.

So now it is not the number of deaths that matter, but who dies?

You mention “cars weighing several tons and traveling 70+ mph.” Very few interstates have speed limits above 70, yet you people travel faster than the posted limit.

How is that regulation working out?

Why is it that the first thing people think of is “regulations” and “laws” when it comes to stopping something they don’t like? Once again, the NTSB’s press release cited a case where the cause is unknown, but they used it as an example of the effects of texting.

Do you really think that makes the case for a regulation? When the agency advocating picks such a bad case as its prime example, do you not think people notice that?

I don’t believe that anyone is saying driving is something that cannot be regulated, but when those regulations are not well proven or demonstrated, people won’t follow them.

26 LisaMarie 12.20.11 at 3:07 pm

Scott,
I don’t think any of those things are a good idea. But in the specific case of texting while driving, I think banning the behavior (meaning issuing tickets) doesn’t get at the core of the problem: that the consequences of the behavior if you cause an accident are not much of a deterrent.

27 Hugo S. Cunningham 12.20.11 at 3:21 pm

I see an analogy to US alcohol consumption 1915-1935: the 90% who used alcohol reasonably responsibly were not willing to give up their liberty on behalf of the 10% of irresponsible users (even despite the hysteria-driven Constitutional trickery of 1918). But the 90% might consider restrictions carefully targeted at the 10%.

In particular, “smart car phones” should be designed for cars so that (1) passengers can continue to use cell phones freely, and (2) drivers would be restricted to “smart car phones,” easily recognized both visually and through IFF technology in passing police cruisers.
Some “Smart” car phone features:
(a) No texting ability at any time.
(b) Free conversational ability below 5 MPH.
(c) Above 5 MPH, conversations to be interrupted when sensors detect closing distance with vehicles or objects ahead. Such sensors have not been adapted to cars yet; that would be a worthwhile Federal research grant.
(c1) The sensor should not cut off conversation in response to brake or steering-wheel activity, lest that give drivers a perverse incentive to delay correcting a dangerous situation.
(d) The sensor should cut off conversation if it detects shouting or other signs of emotional distraction in the driver/phone-user.

28 David Schwartz 12.20.11 at 8:53 pm

The biggest perverse incentive — if an activity is illegal, there is no incentive to make it safer. So long as using a phone will driving is legal, there will be innovation to make it safer.

29 CarLitGuy 12.20.11 at 9:45 pm

And when that fancy technology doesn’t work, Hugo, or it runs the car’s battery dead for some users who can’t stop chatting after they are done driving – is the Car maker supposed to buy it back? I’ve watched the expansion of Lemon law liability over time – the period for filing becomes ever longer (in some states, you can file four years after the warranty expires – for many cars, that’s nine years after it first hit the road), the threshold for Lemon Law remedies has been consistently lowered, either judicially or legislatively, and perverse incentives have made their way into the law which encourage consumers whose cars have been successfully repaired (no longer a defense in most states) to drive their vehicle until they no longer want it, and THEN “Lemon Law” it.

Don’t mind Vince Megna’s histrionics, either. His firm has made a mint delaying and frustrating manufacturer efforts to repurchase cars for years – all the while, the WI judiciary refused to tackle the issue of “good faith” on the part of plaintiff counsel. WI’s incentives for consumer attorneys are very interesting – they don’t get paid by the MFG if the MFG repurchases/replaces the vehicle within 30 days. If the MFG does not, however, the attorney firm steps forward with a demand for double damages (essentially, repurchase plus twice the price of the car in many cases) – mandatory under the statute – and attorney fees in the low five figures for sending a demand letter, then refusing to communicate until day 30 has past. Much of the case law there involves claims as to whether or not two vehicles are “comparable” for purposes of replacement.

WI consumers pay no usage, by the way, if they demand a replacement – which must be equipped comparably to the vehicle at the time of sale – even if it is equipped with items that didn’t come from the car maker. Including dump bodies, snow plows, flat beds, lift kits, oversized tires, and the like. WI covers commercial vehicles. I have personally seen a demand for WI Lemon Law remedies on a commercial vehicle which was driven more than 111,000 miles before its first repair. It was less than a year old.

(Full disclosure – I am not an attorney, I have done some work for a major car manufacturer, and I have worked with a number of states regarding changes to their Lemon Laws. The opinions above are mine alone, and should not be attributed to any of my employers over the years.)

30 Ron Miller 12.21.11 at 9:23 am

30 comments, lots of disagreement, yet conversation remains polite.

For the file, I want to mark this new record of 30. Congratulations to all.

31 Mannie 12.21.11 at 12:16 pm

In particular, “smart car phones” should be designed for cars …

That gives me another reason to keep my old beater. The cost to society, from increasing the price of automobiles by, say, a thousand bucks, plus additional maintenance costs, plus the cost of equipping cop cars with spy technology, would be significant, particylarly compared to the small number of lives supposedly saved.

Why not spend that money on, say, Diabetes research? Or keep it in the peoples’ pockets.

How well did that Nationwide 55 MPH speed limit work out?

32 gitarcarver 12.21.11 at 9:34 pm

As many have claimed, banning something will not necessarily mean an end to its use or even desired results:

As state legislators across the United States enact laws that ban phoning and/or texting while driving, a new Highway Loss Data Institute study finds no reductions in crashes after hand-held phone bans take effect. Comparing insurance claims for crash damage in 4 US jurisdictions before and after such bans, the researchers find steady claim rates compared with nearby jurisdictions without such bans. The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Source: http://www.iihs.org/news/rss/pr012910.html

This means that even though cell phone use while driving has gone down, accident rates have not. One reason may be that instead of looking keeping the phone at eye level, drivers are lowering the phone as not to been caught by police. The driver looking down is a greater risk.

33 CarLitGuy 12.21.11 at 11:50 pm

No surprise. Prohibition wasn’t exactly effective either.

34 captnhal 12.22.11 at 8:50 am

I don’t see how driving and talking on the cell phone using a bluetooth is any less safe then talking to the person in the passenger or back seat. I could even make the argument that when talking to someone in person one is sometimes inclined to glance at their face rather than the road. There’s no such temptation with the bluetooth. Does it then logically follow that all driver conversations should be illegal?

35 Ron Miller 12.22.11 at 9:43 am

No, Captnhal, it does not logically follow. Talking while in the car to passengers is an embedded part of American culture. Cell phone use is not.

If we applied a formula that simple, we would have been cigarettes a long time ago.

36 gitarcarver 12.22.11 at 10:24 am

Talking while in the car to passengers is an embedded part of American culture.

Then there is no need for a ban on devices that use technology as Bluetooth as the person is merely talking in the car.

37 Hugo S. Cunningham 12.22.11 at 11:35 am

By far the most important problem is idiots who text while driving. Can a way be devised for police cruisers to distinguish them from far-less-dangerous talkers? I share the libertarian opposition to a “precautionary” prohibition on talkers as well.

38 gitarcarver 12.22.11 at 12:53 pm

Hugo,

I agree with you, but one must wonder whether this type of regulation will simply be overtaken by events. Speech to text and speech recognition is much more common and available now – even in cars.

Can it be too long before we see cell phone or even cars enabled with that technology?

Instead of texting you with my busy little thumbs, taking my eyes off the road, I believe the technology will be there for me to say “Text message….. Hugo Cunningham…..See you for dinner….end” and have the message sent on its way.

39 captnhal 12.22.11 at 2:09 pm

“No, Captnhal, it does not logically follow. Talking while in the car to passengers is an embedded part of American culture. Cell phone use is not.”

I was addressing the relative danger of the two, not any cultural habits. The recommendation was made by the NTSB and the S stands for safety.

I was using sarcasm to show how foolish I think their recommendation is. I hope I didn’t give the NTSB any new ideas.

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