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Cell phones while driving: Should the State House decide?

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The author of this entry is responsible for this content, which is not edited by the Wilson County News or
August 25, 2014 | 3,029 views | Post a comment

By Dr. Gary Welton

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 14 states have enacted laws against hand-held use of cell phones by all drivers. These 14 states include 11 blue states, two swing states, and one red state. These bans are already in effect in 12 states; two of them will become effective within the next year. Be aware that when you cross a state line, you could be committing a crime.

These laws have been justified by claims that 25 percent of the nation’s car accidents are “caused” by cell phones. The claim, however, that a given behavior “causes” a particular result is a claim that requires scientific support. The data indicates that 25 percent of accidents occur while the driver is using the cell phone (or is in the process of initiating or completing the interaction). That, however, is not the same as being the “cause” of the accident. More information is needed.

For example, if most people are using their cell phones half of the time they are driving, the fact that 25 percent of accidents are associated with cell phone use would suggest that cell phones might actually be beneficial rather than risky. Without this information, there is no way to contextualize the risk.

If indeed cell phones are “causing” accidents, then it would be reasonable to guess (though many other variables might also have an effect) that there would be more accidents in recent years than in the previous years when cell phones were rare. In fact, however, according to the National Safety Council, the number of annual accidents in 1990 and 1995 (11.1 million) was somewhat higher than the number of annual accidents from 2005 to 2009 (10.5 million). The data do not appear to be consistent with the claim.

During the same years, the number of traffic deaths was also down. The number of annual traffic deaths in 1990 and 1995 (45.1 thousand) was somewhat higher than the number of annual traffic deaths from 2005 to 2009 (42.0 thousand). Once again, the data do not appear to be consistent with the claim. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that highway deaths over the past five years remain at historic lows.

Even if it were true that cell phones “cause” these accidents, there is no way to measure how many potential accidents were avoided because of cell phones. It is not sufficient to consider the added risks associated with cell phone use; one must also consider the possibility of added benefits of cell phone use.

I live in a state (Pennsylvania) that has no hand-held ban. On one particular occasion, I recall driving home (75 minutes) from the airport late at night after an intensive business trip. At the very same hour, my wife was driving in another state (which also has no hand-held ban), from a large university hospital. Her mother was in intensive care. My wife was returning to her brother’s home, a 55-minute commute. Needless to say, we were both exhausted. There was little traffic on the roads; there were no weather issues. For each of us, the primary risk factor was sleepiness. That night we talked each other home.

State governments have important roles to play in legislating driving behavior. Any driving fatality is one too many. Three additional states have passed hand-held bans for novice drivers. I fully support such legislation, as there is a steep learning curve associated with driving on the road. We instructed our boys in their early driving years not to use their phones while driving, not even to talk to us. Also, most states have passed legislation against texting. This makes total intuitive sense to me, although I admit that there is not enough data yet to definitively conclude that texting “causes” accidents. However, I can think of no reasonable argument to support any unique potential benefits of texting while driving.

The question for the experienced adult driver is this: “Should I myself be able to make the decision as to when cell phone use is appropriate and helpful in my particular situation, or should the state government have the authority to make a blanket ban against my cell phone use?” Until there is sufficient empirical evidence to support the claim that cell phone use “causes” traffic accidents, I think that cell phone use should be my personal decision rather than a matter of government legislation.

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.
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