By on July 21, 2009

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) woke up to a New York Times hatchet job. “In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel,” the NYT begins, without specifying who, what, when, where or how. But we do get a general sort of why: “They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.” And then, da da DA! “But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.” Dive! Dive! Dive!

So, here’s the “secret” preliminary data (all 266 pages of it). Now, a bit further down the Times article, we get the smoking gun. Allegedly.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, then the head of the highway safety agency, said he grudgingly decided not to publish the draft letter [to Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta "warning states that hands-free laws might not solve" the cell phone distracted driving problem] because of larger political considerations.

At the time, Congress had warned the agency not to use its research to lobby states. Dr. Runge said transit officials told him he could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing if Congress perceived the agency had crossed the line into lobbying.

The fate of the research was discussed during a high-level meeting at the transportation secretary’s office. The meeting included Dr. Runge, several staff members with the highway safety agency and John Flaherty, Mr. Mineta’s chief of staff.

Mr. Flaherty recalls that the group decided not to publish the research because the data was too inconclusive.

Who are these “transit officials” of which Dr. Runge speaks? And why are we to believe Dr. R’s characterization of events when Mineta’s main man Flaherty says the data was withheld due to its quality?

He recalled that Dr. Runge “indicated that the data was incomplete and there was going to be more research coming.”

He recalled summing up his position as, the agency “should make a decision as to whether they wanted to wait for more data.”

But Dr. Runge recalled feeling that the issue was dire and needed public attention. “I really wanted to send a letter to governors telling them not to give a pass to hands-free laws,” said Dr. Runge, whose staff spent months preparing a binder of materials for their presentation.

DOT telling NHTSA not to play politics? Sounds sensible to me. Now, can the NYT backpedal? Sure!

The highway safety agency, rather than commissioning a study with 10,000 drivers, handled one involving 100 cars. That study, done with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, placed cameras inside cars to monitor drivers for more than a year . . .

Not all the research went unpublished. The safety agency put on its Web site an annotated bibliography of more than 150 scientific articles [here] that showed how a cellphone conversation while driving taxes the brain’s processing power. But the bibliography included only a list of the articles, not the one-page summaries of each one written by the researchers.

“It became almost laughable,” Mr. Monk told the Times. “What they wound up finally publishing was a stripped-out summary.”

It’s a conspiracy! Or not.

Mr. Monk and Mike Goodman, a division head at the safety agency who led the research project, theorize that the agency might have felt pressure from the cellphone industry. Mr. Goodman said the industry frequently checked in with him about the project and his progress. (He said the industry knew about the research because he had worked with it to gather some data).

But he could offer no proof of the industry’s influence. Mr. Flaherty said he was not contacted or influenced by the industry.

In summary, then, we now know the NHTSA is not in the business of releasing preliminary data, which is open to misinterpretation. In fact, suggesting that agency torpedoed a study of 10k drivers because they don’t care about driver safety, or care too much about congressional oversight, is a slur against the NHTSA’s history of protecting American motorists and calling it like they see it.

At least the NYT ends (as do we) with a quote from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Rae Tyson, the spokesman who’s helped us investigate potential fraud re: the fed’s “Cash for Clunkers” program.

Rae Tyson . . . said [the DOT] did not, and would not, publish the researchers’ fatality estimates because they were not definitive enough.

He said the other research was compiled as background material for the agency, not for the public.

“There is no report to publish,” he said.

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78 Comments on “Editorial: Between the Lines: NHTSA Hung Out to Dry By NYT...”


  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    I have had two bosses in the past, one bragged about reading books behind the wheel on road trips. The other had me in the shotgun seat while she applied makeup as she drove. I did not say anything because she was an (at times) abusive boss who could not take criticism. She was keeping the vehicle in the lane, so I stayed quiet, but would have said something (as in shrieked in horror) about any impending dangerous circumstances.
    Personally, I think multitasking behind the wheel is a side effect of traffic regulations that dictate driving styles that just don’t command a mind’s attention. Dumb down the task at hand to the point of genuine boredom, and some people naturally will fill in the time with other activities. Personally I tend to just speed because all the extra mental tasks and awarenesses needed to avoid meeting nice Mr. Officer makes up for the mental energy that could just as well get me down the road at far higher speeds.
    As I recall from the 60′ or 70′s , cruise control and cup holders were late to the market in German cars. After driving on the Autobahn many years later, it was obvious why.

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    In a chat I had with a former NHTSA official a couple months back, he also felt that pressure from the cell phone industry, combined with the business-friendly attitude of the Bush II administration, scrapped this above mentioned study. The suggestion (based on that small population) that a one to two thousand fatal accidents were caused by driving while phoning was just too much.

    He pointed me towards a couple of articles published last hear that had leaked some of those conclusions (and led to the above FOIA request).
    Here’s the link: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2008/10/do-cell-phones-kill-1000-people-year

  • avatar
    michaelC

    Cellphone use while driving is a serious problem and one should concern everyone. Again, it is critical to understand the nature of the problem — when you are on a cellphone and driving you literally do not see some parts of the visual field. This effect is called ‘attentional blindness’ and is well documented. The science is beyond doubt.

    So establishing it is a hazard is not really the issue. The problem here, I think, is that this concerns drivers and not vehicles, and licensing and regulating drivers has alway been a right and responsibility of the state.

    Unfortunately states seem to be slow to appreciate the nature of the problem and meet their responsibility to stop behavior that leads to unsafe traffic conditions.

    I think ignorance of the nature of the problem by the public is responsible for the lack of real regulatory action. Drunk driving is easy to understand. Attentional blindness is harder to understand. What people need to learn is this: talking on a cell phone while driving has an effect on reaction time, etc. that is equivalent to driving while drunk. You and yours are threatened by every yahoo driving while talking on their cellphone. It’s not just being annoyed that someone isn’t paying more attention while driving — treat them as if they are physically impaired, because they are.

    Again: Cell phone driving is _not_ like eating while driving, talking to someone in the car while driving, etc. There is a specific way in which cell phone driving impairs the ability of the person to see what is happening and react.

    The political issues alluded to above are real wrt policy making, but it doesn’t change the fact that this problem must be dealt with for everybody’s sake.

  • avatar

    Richard Chen:

    Did you see the disclaimer on the Mother Jones piece?

    “There is no evidence that wireless companies interfered directly to crush NHTSA’s initiative, but the industry has nonetheless ensured itself plenty of clout in the corridors of power.”

    TTAC is plenty skeptical of ALL claims made by ANYONE at ANY TIME. But we never lose sight of the simple fact that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    And it should also be noted that every state has laws against dangerous driving.

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    @RF: yes, I did; however I also posted what the former career insider at NTHSA felt was going on with the cell phone lobby. He quit a few years ago because he was frustrated butting heads daily vs. political appointees during the last administration who didn’t put safety first.

    He also noted that NHTSA weakened upcoming ESC standards from pressure from the auto manufacturers due to cost reasons. ESC safety data was done with expensive systems capable of sensing/reacting faster that what’s mandated for 2011. Will that mean that cheaper ESC systems are less safe? that remains to be seen.

  • avatar
    Samuel L. Bronkowitz

    “The Old Gray Hag” is a dying husk of what was once a powerful newspaper at the center of the most important medium for news delivery.

    Between their obvious political agenda and their “Jayson Blair” fiasco… I have no use for what they say.

  • avatar

    cellphones? hell, what about the morons with their little yappy white mutt in their lap? saw one of those (again) this morning. gives me great fear as i was commuting by bicycle …

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Anti-phone laws have become the latest flavor-of-the-month feelgood measure for traffic safety. And like other feelgood traffic safety measures, the advocates resort to hyperbole and erroneous hypothetical studies to prove their points.

    The laws won’t help, in part because “distraction” is a symptom, not a cause. Drivers who can’t multitask are not going to suddenly morph into driving perfectionists if there is no phone within reach. They will find other ways to crash.

    The hypothetical studies are wrong, because they don’t account for real world behavior. Drivers using phones tend to account for the slightly greater reaction time by taking defensive actions that offset the potential ill effects of the increased reaction time. (Funny thing — that is exactly what happened when speed limits were increased, which is why that all of those doom-and-gloom lab and simulator studies that anticipated death and destruction due to increased reaction times and anticipated higher impact speeds were wrong, too.)

    Phone usage has clearly become common, yet fatality rates continue to decline, as they always have. Jurisdictions with laws against handhelds have not received any quantifiable long term benefit from banning them. Most sensible people don’t respond to laws that don’t work by suggesting an expansion of laws that don’t work.

    It’s quite sad, really. Reality just refuses to obey the studies. You can decide for yourself whether that means that there is a problem with reality or a problem with the studies.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    That using a cell phone impairs ones ability to drive is a certainty in my mind, based both on admittedly less than scientific studies and on my personal experience. The question is how much of an impairment. To borrow from a previous posting and current anti drunk driving campaign, driving while talking on a cell phone is like driving buzzed. For some people that means all over the road for others that means inattention to anything that isn’t directly in front of them. Personally, there is rarely an instance where that phone call is so important it can’t wait. Discussions about what rob did last night and my new hairdo are not emergencies that need to be or should be addressed while driving down the road.

  • avatar
    carguy

    I’m not surprised lawmakers don’t want to see this research:

    1. Cell phone use legislation is unpopular and difficult to enforce.

    2. The numbers in the study, while interesting, are incomplete.

    3. The number of claimed fatalities is relatively low. It may not seem it but when compared to other major causes or death, this is more like electric window fatalities and accidentally backing over pedestrians in trucks & SUVs – tragic but not easily fixed by legislation.

    As for the insinuations that the cell phone lobby involvement, this may be possible but most likely overstated. Cell phone legislation that mandates hands free systems may actually increase sales in new blue-tooth capable phones and accessories.

  • avatar
    Gary Numan

    @ Samuel L. Bronkowitz

    You are absolutely spot-on here. Kudos. You have said what many of us have basically said or thought as well…..I’m finding myself reading the WSJ more for greater depth and coverage of important topics that one simply won’t find in much of the mainstream media

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Phone usage has clearly become common, yet fatality rates continue to decline, as they always have.
    That could also be explained by greater car safety, air bags, ABS, etc.

    Jurisdictions with laws against handhelds have not received any quantifiable long term benefit from banning them. Most sensible people don’t respond to laws that don’t work by suggesting an expansion of laws that don’t work.

    That doesn’t really address the issue here. The studies that they are referring to show that the act of talking not holding the phone is the cause of reduced attention. I know of no state law banning the use of a cell phone in a motor vehicle, only the requirement that a hands free device is used while driving. Second, in California, where hands free units are required by law, I see people driving down the road talking on a cell phone all the time. The law simply is not enforced; so, why would you expect to see any difference in accident rates, even assuming that it is the act of holding the phone that causes the inattention?

  • avatar
    highrpm

    OK, I admit it. I like to talk on the phone while I drive. I have a 30-40 minute commute and it not only helps the time pass, but it also allows me to spend my home time with the kids and not the phone.

    My commute is very easy. Few lights, a lot of highway. I drive a minivan, and slowly at that. I have not gotten in an accident in nearly 20 years.

    A few folks have mentioned this already, but we are at historically low fatality rates on the road. Do we really need another reason (cellphone usage) for the cops to pull us over and hand us a $200 ticket?

    When I ride my bike, the ones on that road that worry me are the late-for-work types that are cutting through traffic, and very young (or very old) drivers that don’t seem to pay enough attention. Most working types seem to drive fine.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    Gary Numan

    WSJ ? Do be on the alert that you don’t become an ideological lackey of Rupert Murdoch. I am making the assumption you and he do in fact have divergent goals and priorities, not to mention wealth and income levels.
    And before anybody starts bleating about the NYT being a dreaded “liberal” publication, do remember they covered Mr Bush’s ass in the 2004 election http://articles.latimes.com/2005/dec/20/nation/na-media20

  • avatar
    Pch101

    That could also be explained by greater car safety, air bags, ABS, etc

    This misses the point.

    We have been told that phone usage is something akin to drunk driving. We have other data that suggests that 10% of drivers are using a phone at any given time.

    Do the math for that. If we had a national bout of alcoholism that led to 10% of drivers being drunk at any given moment, we would see fatality rates soaring beyond belief. No quantity of airbags or stability control would be able to cope with such a substantial increase in DUI, and we would be measuring the results in rising body counts.

    No such thing is happening here. This substantial amount of usage is apparently insufficient to change the trends.

    Again, there is a basic logical flaw common to these erroneous analyses. This is how they blow it with the methodology:

    -First, take a problem and assign a statistical probability to it specifically

    -Then, assume a world that if Law X is imposed that the behavior goes away or is reduced

    -Voila, new Law X

    Instead, here’s the reality:

    -Phones create a certain risk (delayed reaction time)

    -Drivers who use phones compensate for the risk by adjusting their driving to account for the risk.

    -Result: No phone, no compensation for risk. Real world statistical outcome: No change.

    The phone debate is very much like the speed limit debate of earlier years, except now the enthusiasts have joined the wrong side, going for what feels good instead of what makes sense. We should be avoiding the search of what feels good or “seems right”, and instead focus on what gets results.

  • avatar
    michaelC

    @ Pch101

    What are these ‘hypothetical’ studies?
    Here is a link to some of the research from a leading lab for this issue: http://www.psych.utah.edu/AppliedCognitionLab/

    @ Lumbergh21
    The problem does not have to do with holding or not holding the phone. Hands free cell phone use is just as bad. The issue is the type of cognitive processing required to carry on a cell phone conversation. So even the existing laws concerning cell phone use while driving do not address the hazard.

    This is not an issue of ‘reduced attention’ the effect is a kind of literal blindness. It is a result of the way in which humans process visual information and has nothing to do with one’s ability to concentrate or attitudes about personal responsibility.

  • avatar
    spyspeed

    what about the morons with their little yappy white mutt in their lap?

    And the fools with large dogs bounding from the back seat onto the console.

    Along with the ubiquitous eye test every 5 years, drivers should be forced to watch a faces-of-death-style documentary of auto fatalities.

    The simple fact is that your life is at immediate risk every time you are behind the wheel.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    What I find amazing is that with all the states being strapped for fundage, they haven’t implemented and aggressively enforced attention-impaired driving laws (celphone, texting, reading, make-up applying, shaving, whatever)with a high fine ($500). These idiots would be prime pickin’s as a revenue generator for the states, as they are always so visible….

    The way to reduce anything is to put a tax on it…..so start writing tickets for it, and reduce the behavior significantly while abating a portion of the states’ financial problems.

    Thank you, thank you, just send my commission check for the great idea….

    Or, in the spirit of electronic nannies, we could put a mandatory chip in all cars which first gives a warning if it senses the radio-electronic signature of a cell-phone operating within the passenger cabin, and checks to see (using the weight sensors attached to the smart airbag system) if the driver is alone in the car. (To allow passengers to use celphones, that’s why.) If the driver is alone, it gives a one minute warning that the engine will be disabled if the call continues, then shuts off the engine after said minute (to allow for the “I’m stuck in traffic” calls.)

    Don’t like that idea? Then hang up your damned phone and stop endangering other peoples lives!

  • avatar
    MRL325i

    Keep using that pic, Robert. Lovely.

  • avatar
    Wolven

    From the article: “is a slur against the NHTSA’s history of protecting American motorists and calling it like they see it.”

    PROTECTING American motorists??? REALLY??? You mean these are the guys that ensure we get to drive vehicles that fold up like an empty beer can on impact? The ones that consider 35,000 to 50,000 deaths a year and unnumbered PERMANENT disabilities a job well done? The ones that insist the kids go in car seats but can’t bring themselves to require an integrated rollcage? Yeah, they really care about the kids… and the parents… right.

  • avatar

    michaelC :

    “…lack of real regulatory action” ….

    “Again: Cell phone driving is _not_ like eating while driving, talking to someone in the car while driving, etc. There is a specific way in which cell phone driving impairs the ability of the person to see what is happening and react.”

    You just forgot the standard killer argument: “If just a single accident could be avoided by such a law…”

    Brilliant idea, anyway. As everybody knows, new laws are proven cures against all kinds of accidents.

    In the meantime I will wait for a convincing argument why cell phone driving is worse than driving with my mother in law and a child in the backseat and my wife at the passenger side.

    Distracted drivers might be dangerous. But do we need a law against each and every reason for distraction? Why not a law against fiddling on the car hi-fi or on the SatNav while driving? Another one against sneezing? I would not care for the reason in a head-on, BTW.

    I simply wonder what the driving forces behind people like you are.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Do the math for that. If we had a national bout of alcoholism that led to 10% of drivers being drunk at any given moment, we would see fatality rates soaring beyond belief.

    A bit of a strawman to claim that cell phone is absolutely equal to drunkenness, huh? There are definitive reasons why drunk driving tends to result in fatalities, but I guess if a crash isn’t fatal, it doesn’t count.

    Also, I’m pretty sure we’ve been through the basic reasoning behind correlations before.

    Anyway, I guess some more research is here now (that’s not published by cell phone industry through a think tank), so the deniers need to start thinking about what threshold they’re looking for because it’s going to become a question of how much instead of if.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    A bit of a strawman to claim that cell phone is absolutely equal to drunkenness, huh?

    Well, the very same David Strayer of the University of Utah who was cited above for his expertise was quoted as saying, “Just like you put yourself and other people at risk when you drive drunk, you put yourself and others at risk when you use a cell phone and drive. The level of impairment is very similar.”

    So don’t shoot the messenger when I’m quoting those who hold your point of view — this is your side’s rhetoric, not mine. Perhaps you should chide the good doctor for his sloppy use of hyperbole if you don’t care for it.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Michaelc:

    My point exactly, the effect on your driving is there whether you are holding the phone or not. So, why would laws requiring hands free phones be expected to have any effect on the numbers of accidents, least of all deaths (once again, concurrent increases in car safety systems and medical treatment that decrease the likelyhood of death)?

  • avatar
    Wolven

    @ Lumbergh21

    Just how many accidents (caused by cell phone usage) are you talking about? How many deaths? Where’s the data? Where’s the beef?

  • avatar
    agenthex

    So don’t shoot the messenger when I’m quoting those who hold your point of view — this is your side’s rhetoric, not mine.

    I think his stuff were basic cognitive tests? IE. given same situation, talking on phone is as dangerous.

    It’s entirely possible or likely phone users show somewhat better judgment to not get into the same situations, thus the need for more comprehensive study like this one.

    Again, real question for laws is how much to justify one. Never an easy answer.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Just how many accidents (caused by cell phone usage) are you talking about? How many deaths? Where’s the data? Where’s the beef?

    Huh? What do you think the blog post was about?

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The laws won’t help, in part because “distraction” is a symptom, not a cause. Drivers who can’t multitask are not going to suddenly morph into driving perfectionists if there is no phone within reach. They will find other ways to crash.

    Well, yes and no. The trick here is to minimize the chance and magnitude of distraction. The problem is how these studies are being applied: banning or fining the use of phones and such isn’t going to help, much like enforcing speed limits and intersection etiquette isn’t necessarily going to be fixed by cameras and fines.**

    The NHTSA perhaps ought to handle this in much the same way they handled ESC: by mandating a technology change to minimize the problem. People are not going to give up their distractions, and technology is going to make sure that more distractions are coming our way.

    So how do we deal with these? Well, we already have a some very good technology for dealing with physical distraction (pairing your phone with your stereo, integrating text services with readers) which wouldn’t add significant cost or weight. Mandating a universal, cross-industry standard for in-car telephony and supplying a target date to implement it should be step #1.

    The next step is dealing with logical attention deficits. Again, we have technology to deal with this, too. Volvo and Infiniti already sell cars with systems that compensate for lane drifting, following too closely. Mercedes and Lexus already have pre-collision systems that will slow the car and pre-engage belts and active seating in the event of a crash. And we already have in-development systems that can tell, based on eyeball patterns, whether or not you’re paying attention to the road. Again, the NHTSA could speed the implementation of such systems much like they’re forcing ESC now. And again, none of these ideas add significant weight or particularly problematic complexity.

    We, as a culture, are fixated on punitive methods and reactionary troubleshooting. We need to stop that and become more progressive.

    ** or rather, they do work, but perhaps they’re not targeted correctly. What red-light cameras ought to be doing is adjusting signal light timings dynamically to prevent accidents; what speed cameras should do is feed back to urban planners that they need to find a way to slow traffic through a particular zone.

  • avatar
    dolorean23

    This seems to be another discussion worthy of argument that the America needs to do something about its Driver Education system. I was floored when I learned to drive in Germany that it took a year and nearly $1500 (this was 2001) for a citizen to get their driver’s license. I won’t say all, but a vast majority of German drivers pull off the road to have their conversation on the phone. American’s can’t be bothered with that. We don’t seem to care that we are risking other people’s livelihoods and lives not to mention our own. I realize this is my opinion, but its on the driver to do the right thing, the hard thing for many of us for some reason and either don’t talk on the phone while driving or pull over to talk.

  • avatar

    NHTSA is a total waste of time. We have to rely upon European tests and standards, or the IIHS crash test porno released to the news networks. If your car is not sold “over there” then you don’t even get the Euro standards.

    Rear collision, rollover, seat back strengths, etc are much stronger in europe. If you ever go to a junkyard, take a hard look at the seats. Euro market seats are angle iron…US market seats are lawn chairs.

    NHTSA supported Sealed Beam headlamps for a good 20 years past the “sell by” date. They are afraid to challenge the car industry and force innovation.

    Is anyone surprised that during the Bush years, an agency who was basically instructed to sit down and shut up (don’t bother the car companies) would soft pedal a study that would run against the big telecommunications companies, (don’t bother our biggest contributors, who only want the UHF TV spectrum) who have made sure that every major highway has perfect cell service ?

    Sorry, the cell phone is now a tightly interwoven thread in the fabric of life. Those of us who recall pre-cell days don’t always think it’s a good thing.

    Blue tooth and hands free, but NO TEXTING

  • avatar
    Wolven

    Quote from the Conclusion on the NHTSA report; While it is NOT POSSIBLE TO MAKE A DIRECT CONNECTION TO CRASH RISK from experimental results… blah blah blah.

    So, I ask again, How many accidents? How many deaths? Where’s the beef????

  • avatar
    Stein X Leikanger

    It always begins with the insurance agencies. If they can get out of paying, they will. In Yurp, they want to be given information as to drivers’ cell phone usage in the period before serious accidents. If you’ve been surfing, texting, chatting – that could become a problem.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Quote from the Conclusion on the NHTSA report; While it is NOT POSSIBLE TO MAKE A DIRECT CONNECTION TO CRASH RISK from experimental results… blah blah blah.

    So, I ask again, How many accidents? How many deaths? Where’s the beef????

    Research isn’t always direct, especially with somewhat low probability events. For direct measure, every accident needs cooperation from cell companies to extract records (which was kind of done once in england and shows high correlation). You really think that’s going to happen given the industry’s interests?

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The trick here is to minimize the chance and magnitude of distraction.

    You’re right, that would be magic. Which is why it won’t happen.

    All of these proposed solutions miss the basic cause of accidents, and therefore miss why these proposals for broad bans or more training all fail to work.

    Accident rates are ultimately created by risk taking. Those who take more risks end up having more wrecks than those who take fewer risks. Young people tend to be bad drivers because they are highly risk tolerant — they don’t fear death. Drunks are bad because wasted people lose their inhibitions, which would make them less likely to spin out of control. Middle aged sober folks, despite having inferior motor skills, outperform the young people in large part because they don’t want to die.

    All of us have some tolerance of risk. Those of us who aren’t paranoid don’t expect a world free of risk, but we do put limits on how much we’ll accept. We make tradeoffs, and will subconsciously substitute one piece of risk for another, so that our total level of risk matches our willingness to have it.

    That applies here. The various simulator studies impose a phone onto a given environment, in an effort to prove the degradation from the phone itself. What those studies ignore is the very human impulse in the real world to manage such an added risk by reducing another risk somewhere else.

    A driver on the phone will typically offset that risk in other ways, such as slowing down, allowing more distance, or by avoiding some other behavior that they may likely undertake were it not for the phone. Their goal is to not exceed a given level of risk, and when they hit their threshold, they’ll ease off.

    This same issue arose with those failed speed limit studies. The core argument made in those studies was that delayed reaction times, combined with the laws of physics, would result in carnage and death. That made perfect logical sense in a vacuum, but ignored the point that the driver who increases his speed within reason will make allowances for the increased speed with other behaviors that offset that element of risk. The drivers don’t cease all risk, they just substitute one form for the other.

    Ban phones, and you’ll just have more daydreaming, coffee drinking, tailgating, iPod shuffling or whatever else fits within that driver’s level of risk tolerance. This also explains why that nanny devices are effective, while education is not — you can’t teach people to want to be less risky, but you can use technology to convert their perceived levels of risk into results that are less painful.

    In a perfect world, we could get rid of the phone risk and keep a cap on the other risks at the same time. But in the real world, that isn’t going to happen. It didn’t happen with speed limits, and it won’t work with phones.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Ban phones, and you’ll just have more daydreaming, coffee drinking, tailgating, iPod shuffling or whatever else fits within that driver’s level of risk tolerance.

    So basically the assumption here is that people are good at evaluating risk.

    Wait, isn’t that exactly what many people are supposed to be poor at doing?

    Plus, if risk tolerance (and by extension accurate assessment for low-probability events) were anywhere near conserved, pretty much all safety rules are not that useful because all these folks would find other outlets for risk.

    -

    It’s generally know that auto are operated much more safely in say germany vs india. It guess according to pch, it must only have to do with the fact that only middle aged people live in german, and wreckless kids in india.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    So basically the assumption here is that people are good at evaluating risk.

    We are all good at assessing what levels of risk are acceptable to ourselves. We each have an envelope that we won’t exceed for ourselves.

    That does not mean that the level of risk that each individual accepts for himself is socially acceptable or optimal to everyone else. However, that’s the level that dictates how each of us chooses to behave. We tend to be selfish and put ourselves before others when it comes to activities such as driving (and again, the more selfish we are, the more likely we are to wreck.)

    You can’t teach people to reduce their risk tolerance, that comes largely from personality and culture. That’s why education fails — if anything, greater knowledge allows people to falsely assume that they have lowered their risks enough in one area (in this case, their previously inferior level of knowledge) to take more chances elsewhere.

    You could try to introduce other risks that overwhelm the base level of risk, such as the risk of getting caught that comes from enforcement, but enforcement tends to be ineffective unless the odds of getting caught are very high.

    The most effective thing to do is to make it technologically harder to wreck cars or hurt people once the cars have wrecked, in those ways that humans aren’t inclined to compensate for the benefits of the technology. Those changes have led the long-run decline in fatality rates.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    I’m inclined to take the Agency at its word because this is a somewhat nebulous area to begin with. However, dare I say that the Bush years did feature a great deal of manipulation of various agency research and findings to suit a variety of political ends. And it can’t be blamed on the New York Times either, though some will no doubt try.

  • avatar
    geeber

    The New York Times can be blamed for attempting to make something out of nothing. There’s a bunch of innuendo in the paper’s article, and, upon closer examination, not much else.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    We are all good at assessing what levels of risk are acceptable to ourselves. We each have an envelope that we won’t exceed for ourselves.

    Your assumption is that human are good at evaluating the risk by themselves for low probability events. The fact is, sometimes we are, sometimes not. This is why education matters. People changed behavior after learning about smoking risk, diabetes risks, etc.

    -

    You can’t teach people to reduce their risk tolerance, that comes largely from personality and culture.

    Finally getting warmer, but again the dichotomy between culture and “education” and “law”.

    How do you think cultural norms are set? Maybe people listen to celebrities? These are actually serious questions and have non-trivial and often unexpected answers.

    -

    If we’ve learned anything from psychology and sociology it’s that humans can be predictably condition just like other creature. That “selfish when driving”? Conditionable. “Risk taking”? Conditionable.

    Do you really think the youths acting like dumbasses on MTV Spring Break are uninfluenced by teen culture?

    Again, we seem to have this conversation about risk regularly. Let’s try to break it down so easier to think about:

    1. Are accidents avoidable? Are they worth avoiding?

    2. How can they be avoided? Law, perhaps, there’s always prohibition; education, might work in some cases; celebrity PSA, interesting.

    There is no easy answer since the basic evaluation of risk and our morale attitude toward it is somewhat complex.

    For the sake of running a simulated logic game let’s say your assumptions about evaluation and conservation of risk are correct. In general risk due to personal choice without potential effect on related parties is more socially acceptable, like skiing. So if risk is conserved, is it proper to try to move at some cost the risks a person takes while driving to some to other activity?

    I think that should make it pretty clear there are no clear “sides” to these question as some would like to make it.

    Those changes have led the long-run decline in fatality rates.

    That and all the society barbs around DUI.

    Profit driven entities among many others have already been explicitly conditioning their customers with improving effectiveness and efficiency. Surely that can be considered a useful technology with potential application here.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Your assumption is that human are good at evaluating the risk by themselves for low probability events.

    That isn’t what I said. Go back and read it again.

    There is no easy answer since the basic evaluation of risk and our morale attitude toward it is somewhat complex.

    The answer is actually quite easy, it’s just not the answer that drivers in general, and enthusiasts in particular, want to hear.

    What works:

    -Enforcement that is consistent, conspicuous and involves a very high risk of getting caught
    -Nanny devices
    -Higher driving ages with probationary licenses
    -Passive safety

    What doesn’t:

    -Education/ training
    -High fines
    -Random enforcement blitzes
    -Gotcha-style enforcement (speed traps, etc.)
    -Active-safety (works temporarily, but is eventually offset)

  • avatar
    agenthex

    That isn’t what I said. Go back and read it again.

    It’s necessarily implicit.

    The answer is actually quite easy, it’s just not the answer that drivers in general, and enthusiasts in particular, want to hear.

    Save the simpleton crap for the simple audience, and try thinking about the hard questions.

    BTW, why are you questioning people’s ability to evaluate risk now that it doesn’t come out in your favor?

  • avatar
    Pch101

    It’s necessarily implicit.

    Only to someone who doesn’t understand what’s being said.

    Again, go back and read the point. It’s not quite what you believe it to be.

    why are you questioning people’s ability to evaluate risk now that it doesn’t come out in your favor?

    Apples and oranges. Again, it goes back to your lack of understanding of the point being made.

  • avatar
    Wolven

    agnethex: “Research isn’t always direct, especially with somewhat low probability events.”

    Another “analyst style” meaningless weasely statement.

    The problem wasis, that they CAN’T PROVE cell phones are causing any increase in accidents or deaths. But it’s politically correct (and possibly revenue enhancing) if we can create a new excuse law to fine another aspect of normal human behavior.

    And if it’s “proven” that conversing is “distracting” while driving and therefor needs to be banned, are you also willing to argue the same for police??? Are you willing to ban them from talking on their radios and operating their computers while driving? I’m bettin not… Which makes the entire anti-cellphone argument a rather hypocritical exercise.

  • avatar
    Wolven

    agnethex; “It’s generally known that autos are operated much more safely in say germany vs india. I guess according to pch, it must only have to do with the fact that only middle aged people live in german, and wreckless kids in india.”

    Or, just maybe, it’s because a majority of Germans have had years of driving on a modern highway system, in high powered cars at high speeds, and Indians are still in the process of converting from dirt roads, bicycles and rickshaws to modern vehicles and paved roads…

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Only to someone who doesn’t understand what’s being said.

    Their valuation of risk is either accurate or not. You’re now claiming it’s not accurate anyway, so what the hell are they conserving?

    -

    Apples and oranges

    No, they’re evaluating the risk of cell calls. They ‘feel’ it’s high. They are drivers. How is it different.

    -
    Again, it goes back to your lack of understanding of the point being made.

    Your point may or may not be true. Thus the reason for studies like the one above.

    I just pointed that if you follow the logic (need more hand holding?), the question is not simple.

    Another “analyst style” meaningless weasely statement.

    The problem wasis, that they CAN’T PROVE cell phones are causing any increase in accidents or deaths.

    Not all proof is done directly. For example, studies of diseases are usually not done by going to every door of every person in a country and performing a biopsy, and doing it very often, but instead by sampling and stats.

    It would help if you could also read more than this one study of this type.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    The problem wasis, that they CAN’T PROVE cell phones are causing any increase in accidents or deaths. But it’s politically correct (and possibly revenue enhancing) if we can create a new excuse law to fine another aspect of normal human behavior.

    As pointed out above, to do that you need the cell phone companies to act against their own interests and that is difficult to do except in a piece meal case by case basis. But, for you I have included links to two recent events in the lightly populated far northern California where I live.

    http://www.redding.com/news/2009/jul/10/blm-officers-from-redding-hurt-in-i-5-crash/

    http://www.redding.com/news/2009/apr/04/shingletown-woman-sent-to-prison-for-text/

    The second one in particular exemplifies a callous disregard for other peoples lives.

  • avatar
    Wolven

    @ Lumbergh21;

    I’m not saying people don’t have accidents while on their cellphone. That’s not the point. My statement (which was simply rephrasing the NHTSA studies conclusion statement) was that; “they CAN’T PROVE cell phones are causing any INCREASE in accidents or deaths.”

    How many rearending accidents per vehicles on the road were there before cell phones? How many after? How many of the current rearending accidents as a percentage of all rearendings are caused by cell phones? These are really simple questions that SHOULD be very easy to answer.

    Instead we get 266 pages of psycho mumbo jumbo about the inherenent mental processing capabilities of the average cretin used in the study… More commonly known as B.S.

    They made a might effort, and spent God knows how much public money, trying to justify the governmental control freaks desire to banish communication on the roadways… but even with all that effort, they couldn’t actually PROVE anything.

    I honestly believe there are MANY people that DEFINITELY SHOULDN’T be talking and driving. (Or breeding for that matter…:) But rather than punish EVERYBODY because of the incompetent minority, I’d rather stick to the side of freedom for the MAJORITY and take my chances.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    These are really simple questions that SHOULD be very easy to answer.

    No, they’re extremely difficult to answer questions since we don’t have pervasive tracking nor time machines. Again, it would really help to read the methodology, especially for similar studies.

    They’re only easy to answer if cell companies would allow access to their db, but that’s not going to happen for a variety of reasons.

  • avatar
    Wolven

    agenthex : “They’re only easy to answer if cell companies would allow access to their db, but that’s not going to happen for a variety of reasons.”

    And rightly so… In fact, there shouldn’t even BE a cell company db of users phone calls, positioning, and conversations.

  • avatar
    michaelC

    @ herb
    “In the meantime I will wait for a convincing argument why cell phone driving is worse than driving with my mother in law and a child in the backseat and my wife at the passenger side.

    Distracted drivers might be dangerous. But do we need a law against each and every reason for distraction? Why not a law against fiddling on the car hi-fi or on the SatNav while driving? Another one against sneezing? I would not care for the reason in a head-on, BTW.

    I simply wonder what the driving forces behind people like you are.”

    People like me are pointing out there is solid research explaining why cell phone driving in particular is dangerous. I’ve given links to research and tried to explain the foundational cause of the problem. The research also shows cell phone use has an impact unlike that of tuning a radio, or holding a conversation with someone in the car. Again, this is not about simple forms of distraction.

    You can ignore the science, but it doesn’t change the facts. It is not unreasonable, however, to say that in spite of the danger, there should be no law against cell phone driving because of beliefs about the relationship between citizens and the state. Something like that seems to anchor the views of many commentators here. I recall similar arguments were made against drunk driving laws when they were first enacted. In the end the danger to others was deemed to overrule personal liberties.

  • avatar
    michaelC

    @Pch101

    “That applies here. The various simulator studies impose a phone onto a given environment, in an effort to prove the degradation from the phone itself. What those studies ignore is the very human impulse in the real world to manage such an added risk by reducing another risk somewhere else.”

    What was shown was that subjects did not see important visual information. Slowing down, etc. cannot compensate for this type of risk. Such drivers are at the mercy of the other drivers on the road.

    @Wolven
    “Instead we get 266 pages of psycho mumbo jumbo about the inherenent mental processing capabilities of the average cretin used in the study… More commonly known as B.S.”

    The inherent visual-cognitive processing capacities of the ‘average cretin’ are exactly the same as yours or mine. That is a stone cold scientific fact with about 30+ years of research backing it. You are probably thinking of higher level cognitive processes like reasoning etc. for which there is considerable variation amongst people. Just be clear — regarding cell phone use the cognitive processing involved is basic to perception and that is the same process for everyone.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Their valuation of risk is either accurate or not.

    Again, this is not the point. Since explaining this within the context of the subject doesn’t seem to help, I’ll try instead to explain it with an analogy.

    Let’s take food. The average person understands that a hot fudge sundae will contain more calories than an apple. The average person understands that consuming five hot fudge sundaes on a daily basis will more likely lead to obesity that would eating five apples. The person who has a slice of chocolate cake understands that it would be healthier to eat two apples along with the cake than it would be to eat two sundaes.

    The fact that this is common, intuitive knowledge does not mean that everyone is healthy or thin. That doesn’t mean that everyone prefers apples. That doesn’t mean that everyone is a dietitian with precise knowledge of the nutritional content of these foods. But pretty much everyone understands the basic relationship between apples and sundaes, and that if you’re pigging out on sundaes that you might be better off with the fruit than with a slab of tiramisu.

    If we equate calories to risk, we can see that some drivers will push the envelope to almost sociopathic levels, while others are hyper-reserved in their demeanor. Some will place two hands on the wheels and drive defensively out of a textbook, while others will treat the car like a Barcalounger as they sip their espresso and read their book between lights. We all pretty much know the basics of the risk ladder, but we don’t all behave the same.

    The phone user typically implicitly understands that he has slightly delayed reaction time, just as the faster driver knows that he needs more room to stop. That doesn’t mean that the phone user will be any good or that the fast driver won’t tailgate, but they will choose whatever level of behavior that they choose based upon their own preferences. They may be cautious or they may be reckless, but they will choose the levels of risk that suit them personally, even if some of the rest of us find those levels to be offensive.

    Again, that is the problem with these studies. They presume that in the absence of phone risk that there will be no risk to substitute for it. As we saw with all of the very similar methodologies behind the studies opposing the elimination of the 55 mph limit, this either/or approach was a basic flaw in the analysis.

    In the real world, the option of the obese dessert eater (risk taker) is not one of fasting vs. eating a sundae, but of eating a sundae vs. a slice of pie. Take away the sundae, and they’ll just have more pie. The sundae is ultimately a symptom of the problem.

    In the world of driving, the option of the phone user is not one of phone risk vs. no risk, but of phone risk vs. playing with the stereo, smoking, daydreaming, or perhaps just zoning out. The alternative is not as simple as one of either using a phone or of becoming a poster child for driving, but that’s the black-and-white universe that such studies try to invent.

    If the real world behaved like a laboratory, they’d have a point. But it doesn’t, so they don’t.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    What was shown was that subjects did not see important visual information.

    Again, you don’t follow the problem.

    The simulators treat drivers on the assumption that they will drive in identical fashions, but for the phone. The simulator is designed to create such an outcome.

    In practice, the average person using the phone in a real car on a real road will drive differently than they normally would. They may choose a different route, or drive at a slower pace, or make decisions when to use the phone and when to refrain. They don’t have a guy in a lab coat instructing them when to speak or otherwise controlling the environment.

    The study attempts to control for all of those additional variables of human behavior by eliminating them as much as possible, as any good scientific lab study should…which is exactly why the studies don’t work in real world application.

    I would agree — when using a driving simulator in a lab, it will be harder to perform well with a phone than without. But that isn’t the issue that we face in the real world, so while it’s interesting, it’s basically irrelevant.

  • avatar
    michaelC

    @Pch101

    “Again, you don’t follow the problem.

    The simulators treat drivers on the assumption that they will drive in identical fashions, but for the phone. The simulator is designed to create such an outcome.”

    I really appreciate that you have invested time in reasoning about this issue rather than tossing mere opinions about. In this case, I think you have misunderstood the applicability of this research to real world driving. The short answer is that the cell phone effect is at the level of basic cognitive processing and so the laboratory results are highly relevant to statements about real-world effects.

    The point of controlling variables in a study is to isolate the independent variable (the cause) one is interested in to draw conclusions about the dependent variable (the effect). Accepting multiple casual factors in an experiment makes it very hard to say anything useful about results. The goal is to be able to learn something that can be applied even in complex situations.

    The reasoning in your posts revolves around the idea there are interaction effects in real-world models of this type of cell phone study (specifically, people will engage in compensating behavior and so mitigate the effects of the cell phone use). You are right to point out the possibility of interaction effects.

    In this case, however, the causal paths for the driver’s behavior and the cell phone effects are independent of one another. The cell phone impact on attention is due to a cognitive processing pathway. The driver’s behavior can only attempt to compensate for factors of which they are conscious. So someone may slow down because they are less able to ‘concentrate’ on the road, etc. But the problem here is that they will not be aware of some changes in their visual field because the information never reaches the level of consciousness. So the interaction effect cannot mitigate the impairment.

    Of course, one might say that slowing down, not changing lanes etc. will nonetheless mitigate the impact of cell phone driving. I suppose that is true to some extent — but it is true in exactly the same way that slowing down, etc. is a way to reduce the risk of closing your eyes. Of course, the impairment of cell phone driving is not the same as closing your eyes, my point is that it is in the same dimension. So long as the road is straight, the traffic is ‘nice’ and nothing changes there is not likely to be an immediate problem. But if something changes suddenly the driver will be unable to act because they never saw the change.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    A cell phone yacking BMW driver nearly creamed me today when he didn’t bother checking to see that I was already in the lane he swerved into. Luckily I was paying full attention to my driving and was able to avoid him. Had I been as distracted as he was it would have been a bad situation.

    Dump on the NYT all you want, but it is pretty clear that cell phone and other gadget usage in cars is a very real safety hazard. It is also clear that political pressure is brought to bear on government agencies all the time. All those millions of dollars being spent on lobbyists ain’t for nuthin’.

  • avatar
    konaforever

    “ So long as the road is straight, the traffic is ‘nice’ and nothing changes there is not likely to be an immediate problem. But if something changes suddenly the driver will be unable to act because they never saw the change.”

    True. As long as you’re going in a straight line and don’t need to make decisions, being on a cell phone won’t be as much as a an issue. It’s when the scenery changes and decisions need to be made that the effect will be noticed more.

    An example would be a few months ago when I was nearly rammed into by a car that never yielded as it entered the rotary, nearly t-boning me if I didn’t stop. I honked the horn, and immediately noticed that the woman was on the cell phone. I doubt she ever noticed that it was a rotary she just entered and needed to yield. A minute later as I passed her, she was still on the cell phone yakking like nothing happened.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    PCH101:
    The simulators treat drivers on the assumption that they will drive in identical fashions, but for the phone. The simulator is designed to create such an outcome.

    My understanding is that the drivers are in real world situations using a cell phone in a “normal” manner and the only outside influence that wouldn’t be there otherwise is they know that there actions are being recorded and evaluated. If anything this should lead to increased awareness, or at least an attempt at it, while on the cell phone versus the levelof attention they would devote otherwise to their driving.

    Wolven :
    July 21st, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    @ Lumbergh21;

    I’m not saying people don’t have accidents while on their cellphone. That’s not the point. My statement (which was simply rephrasing the NHTSA studies conclusion statement) was that; “they CAN’T PROVE cell phones are causing any INCREASE in accidents or deaths.”

    Well, there were at least two additional accidents and one death last year in my neck of the woods due to drivers paying attention to their cell phones rather than the traffic around them. And, many presumed harmful activities can not be proven to be harmful. Smoking was given as an example earlier. As far as I know, they still don’t have an accurate model of what causes cell mutations (cancer) in smokers. They have large epidemiological studies linking cigarette, and tobacco smoking in general, to an increased RISK of cancer with varying levels of statistical probability. And society in general believes that smoking causes cancer based on these statistical studies. If allowed to do a similar large scale study on cell phone use while driving, we may find similar correlations between cell phone use while driving and accidents. At this time, the best that can be done is small scale studies measuring the response times of people both when they are using a cell phone and when they are not using a cell phone.

    For me it is a personal decision that I know I am less attentive to my driving when using a cell phone. For this reason, I do not use a cell phone, hands free or otherwise, while driving. I ask everybody to honestly evaluate their attention when driving while on a cell phone. If it is decreased at all, please ask yourself if that phone call is more important than somebody else’s life or your own.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    My understanding is that the drivers are in real world situations using a cell phone in a “normal” manner and the only outside influence that wouldn’t be there otherwise is they know that there actions are being recorded and evaluated.

    The “naturalistic” studies (those that involve studying drivers actually driving real cars on real roadways) don’t draw those conclusions. Even a study by David Strayer, the same researcher who helped to create this DUI/phone meme that made the media rounds, conducted such a study, which concluded:

    when drivers conversed on the cell phone, they made fewer lane changes, had a lower overall mean speed, and a significant increase in travel time in the medium and high density driving conditions. Drivers on the cell phone were also much more likely to remain behind a slower moving lead vehicle than drivers in single-task condition.

    http://www.psych.utah.edu/AppliedCognitionLab/LC.pdf

    This goes back to the problem of lab studies for a topic such as this. The methodology of a lab study is to eliminate for other variances, in an effort to measure the impact of the phone without noise from other sources. They want to measure the phone results without picking up other data.

    But in the real world, that is not at all how drivers behave when using a phone. Contrary to the controlled environment of a simulator, they do many things differently in the real world when using phones. The lab methodology flies in the face of real world behavior, so the lab outcomes are misleading, just as they were with the speed limit studies.

    there were at least two additional accidents and one death last year in my neck of the woods due to drivers paying attention to their cell phones rather than the traffic around them.

    This is a logical error. You really have no idea whether they were “additional” or not. And if you look at the overall fatality and crash data, which have all trended downward as phone usage has increased, then one could well say that they weren’t additional at all. They may happen at different times under different circumstances, but over the long run, collisions would have happened anyway.

    The funny thing is that you have some estimates putting phone usage involving 10% of drivers of any given time, while it has been estimated that 5% of collisions may involve phone usage. If we take those two points literally, then phone usage would actually make for safer drivers — after all, 95% of accidents involve the 90% who aren’t on the phone, so non-users have more than their share. Perhaps that because that lower speed in the right-hand lane creates a better outcome than the alternative, namely a faster driver driving in various lanes who swaps phone risk for speed and lane change risk.

  • avatar
    windswords

    michaelC:

    “The problem does not have to do with holding or not holding the phone. Hands free cell phone use is just as bad. The issue is the type of cognitive processing required to carry on a cell phone conversation. So even the existing laws concerning cell phone use while driving do not address the hazard.”

    Ok, call me stupid but I don’t get it. You say it’s the “cognitive processing” used to have a cell phone conversation. What the frig is the difference between that and the brain power to have a conversation with someone in the front seat? Really? Are we going to pass a law revenue enhancement measure for talking to passengers while driving? I really want to know the difference because I have not discerned for myself any different use of my own cognitive reasources when talking on my cell (both handheld and hands free) and having a conversation with someone in the car. I would argue that I have been more distracted when I have had to deal with unruly kids in the back seat.

    I would also add that the behaviour desribed in the study cited by PCH101 holds for me too. When I am on the phone I drive slower in the right lane and rarely change lanes. I do not generally do this when I am in a conversation with someone in the car, so It would stand to reason I am more at risk when talking to someone in person than on the cell phone.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    PCH101:

    This is a logical error. You really have no idea whether they were “additional” or not.

    True, I have no idea whether or not these criminals wouldn’t have found some other way to kill or injure the people around them, but in both instances, it was cell phone usage that was the proximate cause of these accidents, not impairment due to drugs or alcohol, not road conditions, not a mechanical defect in the vehicle, not talking to someone else in the car. I’m sure there are plenty people who are horrible drivers stone cold sober – I think that we can all agree on that; does that mean that we should allow drunk driving as well?

    What about my last point? An honest evaluation of whether or not you are a safer driver when you are not using a cell phone. As far as I’m concerned that is what I really want from the driving public. But, the problem with that is much bigger. It requires a personal sense of responsibility and a desire to put others ahead of your own self-interest, two qualities that seem to be in rather limited supply.

  • avatar
    photog02

    What is missing from this discussion is the fact that the real world, through both naturalistic and crash data (such as GES/FARS data) do not support the outcomes predicted and indicated in the number of studies conducted by the very vocal driving simulator community.

    The simple decline in the absolute number of collisions over time is in sharp contrast to the increase in the number of licensed drivers, vehicle miles traveled, and number of mobile phone users in the United States.

    This, in my opinion, implies that the artificiality of simulator studies prevents generalization to real world driving. While simulators may be extremely useful for understanding the underlying cognitive and psychophysical mechanisms of mobile phone use while driving, they do not appear to accurately capture the true risk associated with this action.

  • avatar
    drtwofish

    I’m going to jump in here and support pch101 (you don’t happen to work in the office next to me, do you? :-) )

    The Strayer (and other simulator) studies are flawed in several respects. First, driving simulators lack visual and proprioceptive fidelity, and a realistic sense of risk, leading to a qualitatively different experience from real driving. Further, the “telephone” tasks in most of these studies are clinical tasks (arithmetic, word generation, etc.) that may not have much in common with real telephone conversations. More importantly, there is no prioritization and/or self-selection allowed in these studies – drivers cannot modulate their own behavior as they might in real world driving.

    Fatality rates were mentioned in an above post, but more telling is overall crash rates (including fatal, injury, and property damage crashes), which can be found on NHTSA’s GES site. There is a relatively steady decline in both absolute crash numbers and crash rates per licensed driver from 1988 through the present day, while cell phone usage has dramatically spiked upward. Thus, there appears to be no dramatic effect of cell phone use on overall crash rates.

    Finally, as mentioned in another post, naturalistic driving studies (such as Klauer et al 2006 ) have found minimal effects of cell phone conversations on real-world driving performance. Note that this is on conversations themselves — manipulating devices (e.g. dialing or texting) was found to be FAR more dangous.

    Of course, naturalistic studies have their limitations as well – as good scientists always say, more research is required! But the take-home is that we need to be really careful about over-inferring real world results from simulator data.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Cars are getting safer and safer. A present-day car is of a magnitude safer than one built 20 years ago. Yet traffic deaths, while decreasing, are still quite high — I think they are the number one cause of deaths of persons aged 16-45.

    It is unreasonable, PCH101, to assume that cellphones are one reason (of several) why automotive traffic safety is still rather poor?

    To merely point out that deaths haven’t *increased* since the introduction of cellphones doesn’t convince me.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    To merely point out that deaths haven’t *increased* since the introduction of cellphones doesn’t convince me.

    The fatality rate in the US has declined by about 20% over the last decade, despite the evil nasty phones. It is at an all time historical low. US safety is, by international standards, pretty good — not quite as high as the UK, Finland, Germany or the Netherlands, but certainly better than Italy, Spain, Belgium or Portugal, for example.

    So I’m not quite sure what you’d like to see. The rates keep falling, although I presume that the rate of decline in fatality rates in developed countries is going to eventually deteriorate because much of the low-hanging fruit of safety has already been plucked.

    With safety glass, seat belts, headrests, more reliable tires, airbags, improved door barriers, stability control, better designed crush zones, etc, etc., I’m not sure how much more we’re going to be able to do to improve things dramatically. We may have to settle for an eventual plateau, unless we’re willing to pay enormous amounts of money for incremental improvements that yield very little additional benefit.

    Again, we need to understand the nature of accidents, and realize that the alternative to a phone ban will not be to produce a nation of road angels. The driver whose alternative to a phone call is to act with greater aggression or more iPod fixation may actually be safer with a phone, given the likely alternative behavioral choices that the individual will make. This is not a simple bad phone vs. good conduct two-option universe here.

  • avatar
    photog02

    I hope no one disputes that both deaths and collisions have not increased (in fact, they’ve decreased) since the introduction of cellphones. However, I do not believe any one is saying that simple correlation is indicative of a causal effect. It is only anecdotal evidence that, if cellphones were as dangerous as they are so often claimed to be, increases in cellphone use should at least be associated with increases in the number of collisions occurring. This has not proven to be the case. Neither has any study of crash data or actual driving (such as linked in a post above) indicated that talking on a cellphone is associated with an increase in crash risk.

    I would also disagree with any assertion that traffic safety is relatively poor. It isn’t, when you take into account the number of registered vehicles, vehicle miles traveled, and licensed drivers active in the system. It is an amazing testament to human capabilities. So if cellphones are one source of risk (among many) on the nation’s roadways, they are insignificant. Are there gains to be made? Of course. But those efforts should be concentrated on the areas of greatest loss in life and capital, such as intersection safety.

    Are cellphones the source of increased risk? Probably, although it is a minor one. Is that risk greater than the risk posed by letting people have iPods and GPS systems in their car? I’m not quite sure. This all leads to the problem (in my mind). We are charging towards a regulatory solution for a problem that we are not certain exists. The efforts and costs associated with trying to ban a technology which may not be in the vehicle in a decade (systems such as Ford’s SYNC will probably eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the interactions a driver has with a mobile phone) are tremendous and wasteful. Yet, somehow, it appears that we are all convinced over the need to proceed down this trail.

  • avatar
    drtwofish

    Nothing dramatic to add here at the moment, but I thought a link to the FARS data would be in order so folks can follow along. Note that this is only for fatal crashes, and overall crash data can be found at the GES site I linked above.

    Re: the previous few posts. It’s a wonderful, great thing that traffic safety is getting better – heck, in 1966 there were 5.5 deaths per 100M VMT, down to 1.27 today! This is no doubt due to increases in both vehicle safety and human factors research, and there’s no reason to necessarily think we’ve plateaued yet. That said, regulation needs to follow real, comprehensive science. It may well be that cell phones (and/or txting, gps use, whatever) play a role in traffic safety, but we need evidence from many angles to make the case for regulation, in my opinion.

  • avatar
    Wolven

    photog02 : “This all leads to the problem (in my mind). We are charging towards a regulatory solution for a problem that we are not certain exists. The efforts and costs associated with trying to ban a technology which may not be in the vehicle in a decade (systems such as Ford’s SYNC will probably eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the interactions a driver has with a mobile phone) are tremendous and wasteful. Yet, somehow, it appears that we are all convinced over the need to proceed down this trail.”

    No, WE are not all convinced. And you’re missing (or ignoring) the real driving force behind this “charge towards regulation”… i.e. MONEY! The good ole nanny state, county and city budget masters believe they can steal more money from the sheeple thru fines than the regulation will cost.

    In addition, the comrade politicians know they will get strokes from the NYT and the other Pravda subsidiaries.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Perhaps a more fitting title would have been “NHTSA Hung Out To Dry by NYT, LA Times, Mother Jones and Slate.com”
    http://www.slate.com/id/2223277/

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Again, this is not the point. Since explaining this within the context of the subject doesn’t seem to help, I’ll try instead to explain it with an analogy.

    I guess I appreciate the extremely long reply, but unfortunately I got it the first time and have already moved beyond that. Notice in prior posts more than one mention of qualifiers like
    low probability event.

    At this point, we need to move backwards and I’ll have to repeat myself again on several points:

    1. If you want an analogy, a better one would be smoking. A long time ago, the direct correlation between smoking (especially second hand) and serious lung illness was not publicly discussed. The education campaign subsequent to the research around this helped create cultural awareness of the problem and in concert with some laws would greatly reduce the detriments to society in time.

    2. Death directly from lung diseases, again, can be considered a low probability event, just like fatalities from distracted driving. It’s not unknown that human brains do not comprehend the statistical nature of such events well. Some years back, I remember a “science” class discussion about the risks of smoking. There were many people who believed the research and thought in the long run, tobacco will kill you, with almost 100% certainty. There were also some who believed the exact opposite, citing anecdotes within their family and whatnot.

    Note that is a range from close to 0% to close to 100% in evaluation of risk of a low probability event. Similarly we see a wide range for cell phone accidents/fatalities in this thread.

    Given such a huge discrepancy, you are still asserting that people are accurately evaluating what level of risk they are willing to take with respect to cells.

    3. I would also point commenter photog02 to the fact that human life expectancy overall did not drop when correlated to introduction of tobacco, yet the research on tobacco use specifically is close to irrefutable. This should make clear that comparisons at that broad of a level is not particularly relevant.

    4. Again, actual science requires actual research. The type of studies needed is exactly that in the original blog post. That info needs to be out in the open and reviewed. They guessed what, about a thousand extra fatalities a year. I’ve postulated many more non-fatals relatively before, due to the nature of phone related accidents. However, I think most would at least agree that number is not zero, and thus even deniers need to come up with some sense of a scale they’re comfortable with.

    -
    At this point, hopefully we’re moved forwards towards the additional points I had above about the moral nature of risk and its implications in society.

    As I’ve mention in past thread about the exact same thing, it’s a non-trivial or at least a slope with no “correct” solution.

  • avatar
    photog02

    I would also point commenter photog02 to the fact that human life expectancy overall did not drop when correlated to introduction of tobacco, yet the research on tobacco use specifically is close to irrefutable. This should make clear that comparisons at that broad of a level is not particularly relevant.

    Your analogy is interesting, but confounded. Tobacco has a clear mechanism to cause cancerous cell growth within the lungs. This has been demonstrated, very reliably, in both laboratory and real world conditions. However, cell phone use has only been demonstrated to have a serious decrement in driving behavior and performance in laboratory conditions. The only corresponding decrements (i.e., crashes) which may be pointed out in real world traffic conditions are anecdotal in nature. Again, I point to the naturalistic studies and actual crash statistics as evidence of this.

    I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, claiming that cell phone use while driving is perfectly safe. I am claiming that decrements from it have not been statistically proven in real world conditions. Some researchers have conducted limited scope, simulator-based, experiments and reached firm conclusions as to the impact of cell phone-based distraction on driving performance. However, the ecological validity of these experiments is either unknown or questionable. Few driving simulators have been validated to real world driving. Furthermore, if I crash in the simulator, what price is paid in terms of life and wallet? Do I normally converse with someone regarding number subtraction tasks?

    Larger scale experiments examining actual driving behavior in automobiles are needed prior to making any broad claims such as “cell phones using drivers are equivalent to drunk drivers,” or “cell phone use increases crash risk by 77.2%.” The data we have, coming from real world driving studies, simply do not support these types of claims.

    As an aside, I would appreciate you expanding on the fourth point. Logically, it would seem that dramatic increases in driver performance (leading to a tremendous reduction in all, including minor, crashes) would be necessary to offset the hypothetical increases in crashes coming from cell phone use. When the large-scale studies needed to answer these questions are conducted, this question may hopefully be addressed.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    However, cell phone use has only been demonstrated to have a serious decrement in driving behavior and performance in laboratory conditions. The only corresponding decrements (i.e., crashes) which may be pointed out in real world traffic conditions are anecdotal in nature.

    It took quite a few years of exhaustive study of various kinds (including a significant proportion that depend on stats) to reasonably conclude that tobacco is indeed a carcinogen.

    As an aside, I would appreciate you expanding on the fourth point.

    The crux of the forth point is that this will ultimately not be a discussion about _if_, but how much. And even more importantly, what those numbers mean. Let’s use about ~1k since it doesn’t seem like a totally wild estimate. The real question is whether the convenience of calling someone worth perhaps 1k fatalities and many more accidents/injuries a year? In any case, everyone has a number they may be comfortable with. However, we can half or double those numbers and it doesn’t change the fundamental discussion on freedom and morality.

    I certainly don’t think those are necessarily easy questions to answer.

    But it’s a bit wierd you followed up the quote above with this:

    Logically, it would seem that dramatic increases in driver performance (leading to a tremendous reduction in all, including minor, crashes) would be necessary to offset the hypothetical increases in crashes coming from cell phone use.

    -which isn’t really point 4 above. The answer to this is that just like human longevity, many things lead to falling rates. Better safety features would be one large one, decreased drunk driving another.

    Let’s assume all other factors lead to a drop of number X, and mobiles negate that by Y. All we know for sure is X – Y (realized rate). The cell specific research attempts to find Y, and since no one knows what X would be anyway (without much more research), no conclusion can be made by only knowing X – Y.

  • avatar
    photog02

    It took quite a few years of exhaustive study of various kinds (including a significant proportion that depend on stats) to reasonably conclude that tobacco is indeed a carcinogen.

    Hence the reason additional research in a driving simulator is unlikely to give us any additional information. It is now quite clear that using a cell phone while driving a non-moving, computer graphics, no risk of injury, simulated vehicle leads to performance decrements. This is why I maintain that large scale naturalistic observation studies are needed. Otherwise, we will continue to only have information from a highly artificial environment to form our judgments of the real world. Hopefully we would not trust simulated clinical trials before proceeding directly to prescribing a new drug. We would naturally try to observe the effect in the real world. This is no different.

    Let’s use about ~1k since it doesn’t seem like a totally wild estimate

    Please let us know what underlies this estimate, and exactly what types of crashes (fatal, injury, major property damage, minor property damage) you are referring to. In any case, you appear to be making a similar argument that is behind some groups’ efforts to have zero fatal collisions. I would refer you, and the interested reader, to the various Vision Zero websites. While this is an admirable and ambitious goal, overall it is chasing the extreme edges of the law of diminishing returns. Furthermore, all life is associated with some degree of risk. The ideal situation is to minimize that risk, but it cannot be eliminated.

    As far as the overall decline in the number of collisions and fatalities (it is important to keep the two separated, because they have vastly different interpretations and meanings), I am merely noting that we cannot make such determinations with the currently available data. Any such attempt to make those types of determinations are confounded by the many different causal factors which must be examined. Again, we need more data prior to making the kind of determinations that are required to produce meaningful or needed legislation.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Hence the reason additional research in a driving simulator is unlikely to give us any additional information.

    This is why I maintain that large scale naturalistic observation studies are needed.

    What are you talking about. It’s known that in isolation distraction leads to significantly decreased performance, sim or not.

    The process leading to cancer is not neceesarily “observed” in the real world. Those are done with epidemiological studies. Similarly, stat studies like the one this thread is supposedly about are done to measure “real world” effects.

    I think you have the mistaken assumption that the study in the original post is only a simulation.

    In any case, you appear to be making a similar argument that is behind some groups’ efforts to have zero fatal collisions.

    No, that’s exactly what I’m not doing. But I am noting it’s possible to understand what kind of risks we’re willing to accept, in the abstract, even without necessarily numbers everyone agrees to at the moment. Given that we’re not going to be divining more numbers out of thin air other than the estimates of the study, I think that’s a fair approach.

  • avatar
    photog02

    What are you talking about. It’s known that in isolation distraction leads to significantly decreased performance, sim or not.

    I do not believe anyone would disagree that, in isolation, distraction leads to a nearly-global degradation in driving performance. However, that is a simple and extremely controlled environment. When you are examining the highly complex system of the driver, vehicle, and roadway environment, such simple direct relationships do not necessarily hold. The currently available research does not capture the interaction between all parts of the transportation system. Drivers will often perform mitigating behaviors while under distraction conditions, such as driving slower and leaving additional headway from a lead vehicle. They may choose a less demanding route or commute. They may reduce the workload associated with using a phone in a car by choosing a vehicle with hands-free phone integration. As of the present, simulator studies are not able to capture these highly important factors. So, in isolation, driver distraction leads to decreased performance. In a less controlled environment, we cannot state that with certainty.

    But I am noting it’s possible to understand what kind of risks we’re willing to accept, in the abstract, even without necessarily numbers everyone agrees to at the moment.

    The numbers sure do help, however…

    The process leading to cancer is not neceesarily “observed” in the real world. Those are done with epidemiological studies. Similarly, stat studies like the one this thread is supposedly about are done to measure “real world” effects.

    I may be just a simple country researcher, but my understanding is that epidemiological studies are conducted in the “real world.”

  • avatar
    agenthex

    I think the misconception comes down to this:

    The study above is EXACTLY the sort of stat (ie similar to epidemiology) study we’re desiring (including you).

    Some numbers are nice instead of playing armchair theorist with human behavior/decisions. But again, it does not change the abstract discussion that only assumes that there’s some risk (say anywhere within a order of magnitude of the NHTSA estimate, ie 100 deaths to 10000 deaths).

    Therefore, it would’ve been better to release it ALL as matter of public record, even if it has some deficiencies, but even if you don’t believe it, the nature of the conversation about how we contrue risk is still kind of the same.

  • avatar
    photog02

    Therefore, it would’ve been better to release it ALL as matter of public record, even if it has some deficiencies, but even if you don’t believe it, the nature of the conversation about how we contrue risk is still kind of the same.

    Unfortunately, it isn’t a question of whether or not someone believes results; data speak for themselves. The issue is applicability. Simulator studies just are not directly generalizable to the real world.

    As far as releasing data, after reviewing the FOIA-released documents, it would appear that all of the studies included in the document were already available in the peer-reviewed literature and published technical reports. All the NHTSA document appeared to contain was a collection of these studies along with some recomendations for action. It would not appear that data was not suppressed, as no data collection activities were in the documents; instead opinion for further action was suppressed.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Simulator studies just are not directly generalizable to the real world.

    The NHTSA actually contains more than that if you read it, as pch101 found out the hard way:

    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/nyt-throws-down-to-ttac-the-truth-about-cars-and-cellphones/#comment-1515344

    They are clearly not using the numbers from straight reaction studies to come up with their estimate. Notice the RR of 1.38 instead of >4.

    It would not appear that data was not suppressed, as no data collection activities were in the documents; instead opinion for further action was suppressed.

    Apparently what happen is that given the results of the study/compilation, some folks thought it was important enough to warrant more actions (ie larger study for verification/validation). They were prolly pissed nothing came of it, the recommendation pushed back by politics, and went to the newspapers.

  • avatar
    michaelC

    @ windswords

    “You say it’s the “cognitive processing” used to have a cell phone conversation. What .. is the difference between that and the brain power to have a conversation with someone in the front seat? Really?”

    This is an older thread, but I think it is useful to respond to this question.

    It turns out conversation is a complex and cooperative activity that requires quite a bit of cognitive processing. The fact that it comes so naturally is really a remarkable aspect of being human. Think of it from this perspective: Use of language is characteristic of humans and is probably not possible if there were much less cognitive capacity available.

    OK, but that doesn’t answer the reasonable question you posed. In effect aren’t all conversations basically the same (with respect to how much cognitive capacity is required)?

    The key is to focus on the cooperative aspect of conversation — this has a big impact on how hard one has to work to understand what is going on and to then hold up your end of the conversation.

    When the person is visible to you there are many non-verbal elements that are used to guide the conversation and add meaning to allow easier understanding (that is less uncertainty about what is meant). Even when you cannot directly see the person, sharing the same environment makes the process of conducting the conversation much easier.

    When the conversation is mediated, for example talking a cellphone, the processing required is much higher. It is believed the lack of other cues and cooperative coordination is responsible. One has to work harder to maintain your end of the conversation and keep in mind the referents etc.

    So if you are talking to someone in the car and you delay your response because the traffic is getting heavy, you believe the other party will understand the situation and coordinate appropriately — for example expecting to wait longer for an answer or keeping the conversation simpler. A person on the other end of the cellphone has no idea of the current environment and you will try harder to maintain a normal conversation. These adjustments are not really conscious, they are just what we do in conversation. Cell phone conversations are cognitively more demanding.


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