I originally wrote this on July 27, 2009 by request for The Mark Online, but I see now they've gone to a new format and deleted all their old content. So I'm republishing it so there's a record of "I told you so...."
Let’s face it, we all know cell phone drivers can wreak road havoc and people should not be driving while using their phones. The visual presence of a cell phone frequently makes it simple to draw conclusions regarding the cause of bad driving and today politicians are falling over themselves calling for cell phone bans for drivers. Although outlawing the weapon may seem sensible, it is the traffic safety fad du jour, and will do little more than create a perception of improved safety, than address the underlying issue(s).
Many actions besides cell phone use produce varying degrees of poor driving, including: reading, attending to children, personal grooming, operating various electronic devices (stereos, GPS, DVDs, games), holding pets, eating, drinking, etc. ... and they are all symptoms of a driving style that promotes cognitive distraction. North American driving culture is for the most part sloppy. It is characterized by big vehicles with soft rides, creature comforts, cruise control... and space...lots of space. Highway speed limits across Canada are set to recognize and include the skills of the lowest common denominator and the condition of the largest and worst vehicles. In turn, speed limits are routinely ignored. Many drivers see it as perfectly ok to impede traffic on a highway by occupying a left lane, or on city streets by double parking while engaging in casual conversation. North American consumers and governments alike have embraced that mindset. In short, driving is not taken seriously and is it any wonder that people comb their hair and text while they drive?
Yet, micro managing drivers is neither the answer nor practical. Competent drivers are in the best position to make decisions and therefore everything should be done to ensure the driver has the best education and tools to formulate decisions and act on them. Take away decisions and you lose thinking drivers and we already have enough of those. Laws should be laws to be obeyed and not designed to be ignored. The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) in its Speed Zoning Information circular says, that “Laws cannot be effectively enforced without the consent and compliance of the public majority”. Laws banning cell phones will neither be obeyed, nor will they be practical to enforce.
The unintended consequences of a ban are likely to be dangerous. For example, in California, simply the act of holding a cell phone will net the driver a ticket and fine. So what is the logical next step, for cell phone users to avoid a ticket? It might simply be to hide the phone in a less visible place. The most obvious place is out of sight, which will result in more danger than currently exists as the driver must shift both vision and focus. Another unintended consequence will be merging or rear-end crashes resulting from drivers stopping or pulling over unexpectedly for an important call, causing a sharp interruption in traffic flow. Speed variance is a known cause of crashes… more so than speed.
According to a recent British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) poll, while almost 60% agreed cell phone use should be restricted, nearly 50% admitted using while driving. So unless many respondents to BCAA’s poll are not drivers (a statistically unreliable poll by BCAA’s own admission) there exists a significant number who believe they are, or will be, above the law. In any event, the case for a ban should be supported by more than anecdotal or circumstantial evidence showing usage and crash correlation.
The BC government recently published a discussion paper describing the types of research being relied upon and it refers to three which involve: observation, data using correlations, and experimental. While the first two types provide some information about contributing factors, they show correlation and not causation. Looking at it another way, the victim was breathing when he died, therefore breathing was a contributing factor in his death. The third type of study is far more engaging but the results lead to the conclusion that the overall problem of distraction is what needs addressing.
Governments need to take the lead, minimize the causes of cognitive distraction and promote the safe and efficient movement of goods and people through education. The laws are already in place to punish drivers who transgress. Driving without due care and attention should be enforced and applied to many things besides cell phone use and texting. Cell phone distraction is a symptom of a greater problem that police and safety advocates should instead be addressing with effective public relations and existing enforcement tools.