September 5, 2005

Mobile menace?

By: Tim Lee

Cell phones sure can be irritating! People whip them out while they’re sitting next to you on the bus or the doctor’s waiting room, yacking about that evening’s dinner plans, last night’s football game, or the latest developments in their love lives.

And people with cell phones are even more irritating behind the wheel. There, thankfully, you don’t have to listen to their conversation. But that’s small comfort, since you do have a share the road with them. And cell phone users are widely known to be rude drivers, weaving erratically, cutting other drivers off, and generally being a menace on the road.

Fortunately, city councils and state legislatures across the country find cell phones irritating too, and they’re doing something about it. New York, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, have all banned cell phone use while driving. Other jurisdictions will doubtless follow suit in the future.

But I have a question: Is it really appropriate to make policy based on what the majority of us find irritating? I think chihuahuas are incredibly annoying. If I were on a city council or in a state legislature, I would be tempted to vote in favor of banning them. But more than likely, cooler heads would prevail. We would recognize that, no matter how much they might irritate us, people have the right to own yippy rat-dogs if they want to.

Advocates of cell phone bans have a ready retort: “This isn’t just about irritation. It’s about safety! Driving while using a cell phone is a dangerous distraction, and banning them will save lives.”

But will it? One study suggests otherwise. The study, published in the British Medical Journal, examined traffic accidents in Australia. It found that cell phone use increased the likelihood of accidents, but more interestingly, it found no significant difference between those who used their phones with a handsfree kit and those who didn’t. In light of those results, it’s hard to see the point of the D.C. ban, which has an exception for hands-free phones.

One solution would be to broaden the ban to encompass all cell phone use. But before you pick up your cell phone (while seated safely at your desk, of course) to call your city council member and demand a total ban on cell phone use, I have another question: how many studies have been done on the safety effects of eating a hamburger while driving?

After all, researchers at the University of Illinois have built a simulated road system for studying driver distraction. They used it to study cell phone use and found that listening and talking are equally distracting while behind the wheel. Perhaps they could do the same for hamburgers. No doubt such a study would find that drivers eating Big Macs are less attentive and more likely to get in an accident than those whose dining rooms aren’t on wheels.

Yet there is no national debate about the safety hazards of hamburgers (well not from auto accidents, anyway). Nor are there national debates on what to do about drivers conversing with a passenger, yelling at kids in the back seat, or applying makeup. No one would dispute that those activities are risky, yet everyone agrees that the police have more important things to worry about.

So why the recent focus on the hazards of cell phones? Their rapid introduction and newfound pervasiveness make them a highly visible target for consumer irritation. When you’re cut off by someone who’s jabbering away, you curse cell phones. But when the reckless driver is changing CDs, you direct your ire at the driver, not the music industry. The push for cell phone bans likely comes from the fact that they’re uniquely annoying, not uniquely dangerous. For example, consider the debate over cell phone use on airplanes, which is focused less on safety issues than on whether it would annoy other passengers.

Driving while distracted can kill. That’s an important message, and studies on cell phone-related accidents help to remind us of the danger. But legislators who focus exclusively on cell phones are allowing irritation with a particular device to cloud the bigger picture. Instead of giving drivers an easily-ignored and hard-to-enforce list of dangerous activities, we should be emphasizing that driving requires full concentration, and that any distracting activity can lead to an unplanned test of your car’s airbags.

Tim Lee is the science and technology editor of Brainwash and the editor of the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri think tank. His website is