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The Fallacy of the Danger of Driving-While-Phoning

Last week, a friend of mine sent me a link to a game that tests your reaction time by shooting runaway sheep. He sent it as an example of why you shouldn't use a cell phone -- not even by talking on a hands free set -- while driving. (To see for yourself, take the test twice, once while paying attention to the sheep and again while talking to someone near your PC.) This game is not entirely unlike the texting-while-driving game I told you about last year.

I've talked about this subject a few times before, but this game is a great opportunity to talk openly and honestly about using your phone while driving a car. I hope you'll read this objectively, and consider my argument while setting aside the reflexive dismissiveness that most people seem to bring to the table when the subject of cell phones and driving arise.

I'll admit this up front: My reaction time is no doubt worse while talking on the phone. I doubt anyone would not concede that point. But my response is, "so what?"

The bottom line is that it really doesn't matter, because one's slower reaction time while on the phone is quite obviously still within a perfectly acceptable range in the vast majority of real world conditions. This is evidenced by the fact that despite an exponential increase in cell phone usage over the last decade, statistics show that the national car accident rate has fallen year over year almost the entire time. If cell phones really were a direct contributor to car accidents, the accident rate would have risen proportionally to the proliferation of cell phones. Nothing even remotely close to that has happened.

And studies are likewise showing that in states that have effected hands free driving laws, the accident rate has not fallen at all since the laws were enacted. This isn't an example of "both sides can produce studies showing whatever they want." The data to date is really one sided: I've yet to see anyone on the side of hands-free laws produce any scientific data to show that their position reduces accident rates.

I'm not saying that it's a good idea to drive while using a cell phone, playing the cello, or shearing a goat. I'm saying that the actual scientific evidence appears to show that auto safety is relatively insensitive to cell phone use. Yes, I know that everyone has some sort of anecdotal evidence, as in "a car almost drove me off the road today and it turns out the driver was on the phone," but to actively campaign against cell phones in cars is actually fairly anti-scientific.

To many people, it just "feels" like cell phones in cars are unsafe, and a number of shallowly constructed tests (like the two games I mentioned above) bear out that gut impression. That's in spite of hundreds of millions of real world tests actively taking place every week in real life, week after week, for the last decade, in which actual data shows that cell phones are not any more of a safety risk than anything else that happens in a car.

Of course, I'm talking about statistical risk in aggregate -- not about specific examples of morons talking on the phone and failing to pay attention to the road. There will always be specific, anecdotal examples of cell phones directly contributing to highway accidents. But my point is that the marginal loss in reaction time has not caused measurably higher real-world risk on the road.

And that's why I oppose legislation that specifically restricts the use of cell phones in cars when there already exists legislations punishing more general distracted driving practices. Agree? Disagree? Tell me why in the comments.

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