Briefing Report: NTSB Proposes a Ban on All Cell Phone Use While Driving

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On December 13, 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a recommendation that every state in the country issue a ban on the use of cell phones, including hands-free devices, while driving.  The recommendation comes on the heels of a study that calls into question the impact that California’s cell phone ban has had on accidents and further demonstrates the lack of sound analysis in the development of public policies both in California and across the nation.

Gray Summit, Missouri

Although the NTSB recommendation carries no real weight, it provides some insight into the goals and objectives of federal transportation planners.  This particular recommendation came in response to an accident at Gray Summit, Missouri in August, 2010.   According to the NTSB accident report, on August 5, 2010, a Volvo truck tractor stopped behind traffic in the right lane and was struck by a GMC pickup truck that was merging from the left lane.  A convoy of two school buses, traveling on I-44 struck the GMC pickup, killing the driver of the pickup and one passenger in the lead bus and injuring 35 others.  The report states that the driver of the GMC pickup received 11 texts in the 11 minutes prior to the crash and that he was suffering from sleep deprivation.  In addition, the report documents the fact that the first bus was unable to stop in time due to the driver’s attention being drawn by a bus on the side of the road, and that the second bus failed to stop because it failed to maintain the recommended minimum distance from the lead bus.

Given the facts of the case and the perfect storm of distractions leading to the accident and the fault of the three drivers, the NTSB’s only recommendation for national action states that the 50 states and the District of Columbia should (1) ban the use of portable electronic devices for all drivers; (2) use high visibility enforcement to support the ban; and (3) implement a public education campaign on the dangers of using a cell phone while driving.

What is remarkable about these recommendations is that they simply do not reflect the facts of the case.  First of all, we don’t know that the driver of the pickup was texting at the time of the accident.  What we do know is that he was sleep deprived, and that the drivers of the two buses were not following basic driving precautions that could have prevented the accident.  As noted in a story on the NTSB recommendation in Popular Mechanics, “…despite the focus on texting as a cause of this particular accident…NTSB’s own report shows that the drivers involved in this scary wreck were involved because of driver inattention having nothing to do with cell phones, texting or any other personal electronic devices.  It was just the old-fashioned kind of driver inattention that has caused most accidents since the beginning of the automobile age.”

Public Relations Trumps Public Policy

Simply repeating a statement as often as possible does not necessarily make it true, but this approach seems to have become the benchmark of public policy in California and apparently, the nation.  Much like the host of media outlets and experts that espouse global warming theories without ever deigning to debate the facts, transportation experts and law enforcement continue to state that driving while using a cell phone is one of the biggest threats to safety on our roads.  The PR campaign has seemed to pay dividends.  According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, 69% of Americans believe that talking on a cell phone should be illegal, and 89% believe that texting while driving should be illegal.

The more fundamental question has never really been discussed, namely, are these assumptions accurate?  California adopted a ban on handheld cell phone use while driving in 2006, with implementation beginning in 2008.  To hear advocates debate the issue in 2006 and since, the imposition of the ban was single-handedly responsible for a huge drop in both accidents and fatalities in California, thus bolstering the need for nationwide implementation.  Although all this rhetoric makes for compelling copy, the facts are far less clear.  A recent comprehensive statistical analysis concludes that the actual impact of the ban on accidents is statistically irrelevant.

The report, “Did California’s hand-held cell phone ban reduce accidents?” (Nicholas Burger, Daniel Kaffine and Bo Yu[1] ) concludes that there is “…little evidence of a decrease in accidents due to the California cell phone ban.”  Taken in isolation, this assertion, although certainly interesting, merely provides one countervailing opinion among a host of other reports and studies that make dramatic claims about the impact that the cellphone ban has had on accidents.  Given the wealth of differing opinions, it is often a challenge to ascertain the truth with any certainty.  This task becomes increasingly difficult when the organizations (such as the NTSB) charged with providing unbiased data and recommendations appear to have forsaken balanced policy in favor of advocacy.

So how do the public and the public sector tease the truth out of this forest of statistics, when so many agencies and academics are armed with their own reports?  According to the authors of the recent Burger/Kaffine/Yu report, the best method is to stick to the actual statistics, cancelling out the extraneous materials and conjecture to develop an “apples to apples” comparison.

In the interest of developing just such an analysis, Burger and his colleagues went to the actual accident reports from the period immediately before and after the imposition of the cell phone ban in California and compared the statistics to the same data from surrounding states that had not implemented a ban.  The result shows that accidents across the board were dropping, not just in California.

“Two recent studies evaluate the effect of cell phone ban policy using collision data.  Highway Loss Data Institute analyze state level automobile insurance claim frequencies (including California) using a difference in differences method.  Using neighboring states as a control group, they find no evidence that insurance claim frequencies decreased due to bans on cell phone use…collision frequencies in control states were declining during the same time period, which would confound estimates of the effect of the policy.”

In addition, the number of cell phone subscribers in the United States has increased from 5 million in 1990 to 268 million in 2008.  If the use of cell phones while driving really poses such a threat to the safety on the roads, simple math would suggest that the number of accidents over that same period would have skyrocketed.  In fact, from 1990 until 2009, the number of annual accidents in the United States dropped from 11.5 million to 10.8 million.

To put it bluntly, the numbers just don’t add up.

What is more, public policy analysis has not even attempted to get to the root causes of distraction.  Is the act of conversing the distraction, or is it holding the phone?  If the conversation is the distraction, then transitioning to a hands-free device will not eliminate the distraction, and thus California’s ban would not have a measurable impact on driver safety.  Furthermore, how is talking on a cell phone any more distracting than talking to someone in the car, or worse, yelling at the kids in the back seat?  The short answer is that we simply don’t know.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

Despite the fact that the data does not support any significant impact on accidents from the imposition of the cell phone ban in California and the data from the accident report in Missouri showing that the root causes were inattention not associated with the use of a cell phone, the NTSB is proposing the ban of all cell phone use by motorists as the best means of minimizing driver distraction and thus reducing accidents on the roads.  Even supporters of the California ban may be uncomfortable with what amounts to a significant augmentation at the federal level, expanding the restrictions to the use of hands-free devices.  For opponents of the California ban, this NTSB recommendation provides additional proof that federal regulators are in the weeds pursuing an agenda of their own.

The fact is that using a cell phone while driving is potentially dangerous and can constitute a significant distraction.  However, imposing a ban – no matter how stringent – will not resolve the real issue, as demonstrated by the accident in Missouri, where the problem was driver distraction, not cell phone use.  As much as regulators may like to demonize cell phone use, drivers have been making dangerous choices on the roads ever since there were roads.  As the article in Popular Mechanics aptly points out, “…drivers function despite all sorts of distractions: car radios, passengers, weather, roadside signs, intentionally distracting highway billboards, erratic behavior from other drivers and so on.  Learning to focus on the task at hand despite all that noise is an important part of learning to drive…”

A far better approach to improving safety on the roads is not to be distracted by the latest gadget that a driver may be using, but instead to focus on the behavior of the driver.  Stricter enforcement of distracted driving and the behavior that ensues from that distraction will give drivers additional incentive to keep their eyes on the road and will keep us all safer.  After all, when I am on the freeway, I am far less concerned with whether the driver next to me is texting than I am if they are drifting into my lane.


For more information on this report or other Transportation issues, contact Ted Morley, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.