Disclaimer: If you think I’m advocating bad driving or increased accidents, then please finish reading the entire post before making your judgment call.
Starting July 1st, all Californian drivers who want to use a mobile phone for talking will be required to use a headset (or here, if you prefer being called dude). This is presumably for our safety, and if there was an impact on our safety, I’d be endorsing it all the way to the DMV. But it seems like this is really just politicians putting laws in place to placate constituents, rather than focus on issues which do impact public safety. This law is just plain off the mark, and here are some reasons why (along with facts from the government to really spice it up):
Issue #1: Calling requires headsets, but texting, email, and other keyboard use is still acceptable. Numerous studies have shown the distraction factor is about the content of the call, not the fact that someone is holding a phone (in fact, NHTSA studies have shown that a CD player causes more distraction than using a cell phone, and we’ve had CD players in cars for many many years – no new laws there for some reason). So just remember, if you get pulled over, insist you were texting or maybe listening to a podcast on your phone, as neither are fineable offenses.
Issue #2: No supporting statistics from existing “trials”. A headset-only law went into effect in NYC back in 2001, giving the state 7 years’ worth of data. Checking through their news and stats pages, the NY State DMV has not issued a single report showing a decrease in accidents or fatalities. I’ll talk more about lacking statistics in just a moment, but considering how quickly NY dropped stats while discussing drowsy drivers (100,000+ crashes a year), one would think there’s something they could share on the “success” of the cell phone law.
Issue #3: A $20 fine?!?! Really? Are they being serious here? The entire purpose of our criminal justice system is to create disincentives to committing a crime. For example, I would rather not be in prison, hence the lack of grand larceny I’m involved in. Pretty logical stuff. The fine for not using a headset is $20. It’s almost like they are saying “yeah, we know this is a silly law, so our method of abdicating ourselves is keeping the fine ridiculously low.” Want to make this one effective? Make it $200 per offense, and start giving out points after the first offense.
Issue #4: No other relevant statistics of any kind. I went scouring the NHTSA web site for some statistics on cell phone usage, driving, and accidents. I found lots of stats on cell phone usage while driving (PDF). I found lots of stats on accidents (PDF). I found NO stats that link the two together. Not one single piece of data which said anything like “with the ever-increasing number of cell phones being used while driving, here is the resulting increase in accidents”. In fact, I couldn’t even find a casual implication where anyone from NHTSA actually stated it just maybe might kinda sorta possibly cause accidents. Amazingly, if I found anything, its that both accident rates and injury/fatality rates are on the decline, year after year.
Here is the only “data point” I could find across the entire Web (aka “what I found by looking through a few pages of Google search results”), from the Public Policy Institute of California:
The findings indicate that mobile phone ownership is associated with higher traffic fatality rates in bad weather, on wet roads, and in rush-hour traffic. California’s new law should lead to some 300 fewer traffic fatalities a year.
I think that is awesome. Except, again, there’s no data to back it up, so it sounds more like “good spin” than anything else. But I could be wrong, and if on July 1, 2009, the state can in any way prove that they saved us lives, I’ll eat my (virtual) words. Of course, since accidents and fatalities are on the decline anyway, I am not exactly sure how they’ll do so, but I promise to keep an open mind.
Now for some hyperbole. It surely seems like every time I almost get sideswiped, or someone rolls through a stop sign while I’m pushing the stroller, the driver has a phone at his/her head. From all appearances, its definitely those idiots on their phones that are causing all the problems. And I, like everyone else, want fewer accidents and safer roads for all. But maybe it’s just the impression of idiocy? On the freeway yesterday I almost merged with a Ford Pickup that was in my blindspot, but I wasn’t on the phone at the time.
The bottom line, in my eyes, is bad drivers are bad drivers, and give a bad driver a distraction, and he/she will find a way to become a worse driver with the distraction. I hate the catch-all blame of technology for society’s woes. We should be requiring car manufacturers to enable voice-controlled stereos, temperature controls, and GPS systems, as all have been causally linked to accidents. The real question here is why isn’t the State (or Country) protecting its citizens by putting the power in the manufacturers’ hands? Hint: the answer is, similar to the copyright laws, its easier to push individual citizens around than it is to get big companies with big lobbyists to make change.
The NHTSA states “the task of driving requires full attention and focus. Cell phone use can distract drivers from this task, risking harm to themselves and others. Therefore, the safest course of action is to refrain from using a cell phone while driving.” This seems to apply to many products beyond a cell phone, but have been in cars for much longer. It’s a shame that this law takes effect tomorrow, as it will, in my best guess, cause more work for police, not help the growing nationwide traffic problems, and fundamentally not save us from the bad drivers who just don’t pay attention regardless of the phone, donut, coffee, Blackberry, iPod, rattle, stapler, or other attention-getter they are holding in their hands. The State of New York (remember, the ones with LOTS of data) has advice, which is labeled with “use common sense“. Shouldn’t that apply to the lawmakers as well?