A New Story Exonerates The Mobile Phone; A Few Thoughts On The Appeal To Emotion

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

…new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that talking on a cellphone while driving does not increase crash risk. Published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, the study uses data from a major cellphone provider and accident reports to contradict previous findings that connected cellphone use to increased crash risk.

Oops. If this study, which appears to be organized along some fairly rational and defensible lines, turns out to the best representation of reality we have available, it will mean that the sole purpose of all the anti-talking-while-driving and mandatory-handsfree laws that have fast-tracked through the states in the past decade has actually been to, um, increase revenue from ticketing harmless motorists. If this in any way surprises you, then you might well be an exceptionally naive and trusting person and a few years from now I’d to introduce my son to any biological daughters you might have. This is government in the modern (and perhaps any) age: create a fear that shouldn’t really exist, manipulate the public into hysterics, extract cash from the public and divert it to the most favored recipients. It’s a tactic with an exceptional success rate and an appeal that spans the entire spectrum of political beliefs.

With that said, when the phrase “the public” is used, it refers to us. You and me. As individuals. Can’t we do better than providing the desired knee-jerk responses to whatever soundbites Messrs. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Stewart, and Maddow scream and snark into our ears?

Yesterday TTAC’s readers expressed a pretty wide range of emotions regarding texting and driving. I hasten to stress that the Carnegie Mellon study in no way addresses the risks of texting/Internetting/crushing candy while driving. It’s a study about talking on a mobile phone while driving, nothing more, nothing less. Still, it’s worth noting that the same shrill, intolerant voices we hear all around us regarding the supposed hazards of mobile device usage were, indeed, singing the same chorus years ago about talking on the phones. How many times did we hear that entirely sensible reasoning that “a passenger in the car is far more able to respond appropriately and allow the driver to refocus his attention in a dangerous situation than someone on the other end of a cell phone call”? Doesn’t that sound completely reasonable? I sure as hell nodded my head the first twenty times or so I read it, even though there was a little voice in the back of my mind screaming, “OH YEAH? WHAT ABOUT THAT TIME YOU AND ‘MASTER J’ THE 325-POUND WHITE RAPPER AND HIS WHOLE POSSE TOOK HIS PARISIENNE ALL THE WAY TO CLEVELAND AND YOU HAD TO DRIVE AND EVERYBODY IN THE CAR BUT YOU WAS SO HIGH THEY WERE LICKING THE WINDOWS AND SHOUTING “MOOSE” EVERY FIVE MILES? HOW MUCH HELP DID YOU GET ON THAT FINE NIGHT?”

Still, the idea that mobile-phone usage is dangerous has plenty of emotional appeal. We’ve all seen some brain-dead (insert group of people for whom you have personal contempt) auto-piloting their (type of vehicle you have never purchased, giving you an unwarranted sense of superiority) through an intersection with their face glued to the phone and an obviously oblivious expression on that face? Surely that person will be stricken from the face of this Earth by the deity/karma/market force of your choice, right?

We’re pretty eager to wish death and destruction upon people who have made different choices than we’ve made. You’re driving through a downtown Detroit freeway at 85 miles per hour, wishing the dumb-asses doing 50mph in their junkers would swerve off into the barrier, when four malt-liquor-fueled heroes in a Lumina Euro blast by you at 115, and you wish they would hit the barrier as a reward for their recklessness. Only your choices are good, right?

It seems reasonable to me that texting and driving is dangerous. I can’t see how it isn’t. How can it be safe to drive down the road while not looking at the road? But that’s just a feeling I have. It’s not backed by statistics or studies so far. It’s just a feeling I have, based on some preconceptions I have about other people. I have plenty of feelings that seem reasonable to me. I believe that people in cheap shoes are more likely to lie to you. I believe that if somebody has a Prius that I can probably pretend I didn’t see the lane was ending and cut in front of them and they won’t shoot for me doing so. I believe that white girls who have solid four-year degrees from respectable schools and nice furniture never have STDs. So far, every single time I have tested these beliefs they have proven to be correct. But that doesn’t mean they have statistical validity.

When my son started to toddle around, his mother sent me a link to a story written by a woman whose toddler had escaped her crib and climbed a piece of furniture which had then toppled over and crushed the child. The email said, “Just please consider bolting your furniture to the wall so this tragedy doesn’t affect you.” Do I even need to admit that I ran around the house looking for ways to bolt furniture to the walls? How the hell am I supposed to bolt an Amisco steel-arc bookcase with no sides or back to the walls? But I was genuinely concerned about it. Then the babymomma started getting worked up about my Noguchi table and the possibility of it collapsing and depositing a hundred-pound piece of glass on my son. I saw myself writing an email, “Dear Fellow Noguchi-Table-Owning Father…” and I started putting things under the Noguchi table to hold it up. Needless to say, the kid is alive and no piece of Modern furniture conspired to kill him. But at the time it seemed real and critical that I address these issues, because I didn’t want to be the one guy who let his kid experience death by Herman Miller.

It’s easy to let emotion and stereotype and anecdote guide our decisions — on texting and driving or anything else — but that’s not how a civilized society is supposed to operate. We’re supposed to be better than that. We’re supposed to evaluate the costs and benefits and act accordingly. Are more lives lost by letting kids text or saved by letting doctors receive texts? How many people successfully feed and educate their children with jobs that require some mobile device usage? Would that dippy teenaged girl that almost hit you because she was texting have been a perfect Jackie-Stewart-esque model of on-the-road safety if we had a law that said she shouldn’t do it? These are decisions that require effort and thought and we should treat them that way.

Every editor of TTAC has had a particular focus in his work. Our august founder, Robert Farago, believed GM was going to fail and he worked to prove it would happen before it did. Ed Niedermeyer made it his goal to uncover the political skeleton in the automakers’ closets. Herr Bertel Schmitt brought us a Chinese perspective on everything from trade sanctions to ear size. I’m primarily here to reach out to our readers and bring them back home. My goal is to be a mirror of your desires for an automotive website. I have no desire to focus the site on what interests me; if that were the case it would be D-Cups and PRS Private Stocks and dusting the corner exits 24/7. (All that junk goes on my website now, btw.) So if you, the B&B, want TTAC to adopt a more emotionally-friendly position on distracted driving, I’m willing to do it. But I don’t think it serves the truth to do so, and we’re supposed to be about the truth here.

Not the emotional.
Not the satisfying filter-bubble pablum you can get at your favorite political blog.
Not the easy or convenient.
The truth.

About cars, about driving, about safety. I don’t think the verdict is in on distracted driving yet, and I think that when it does come in, it won’t have anything to do with the oceans-of-blood-on-the-freeway tripe we’re hearing from the government and its media lapdogs. Why don’t you join me in a search for the truth about it? And if the truth turns out to be that holding a Samsung Galaxy S4 while driving is deadly behavior, we’ll condemn it. I promise.

(Oh yeah, here’s the survey. You didn’t think I would forget, did you?)

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2 of 84 comments
  • Richard Chen Richard Chen on Aug 12, 2013

    A couple of months ago, DOT published an early estimate of 2012 highway fatality data that demonstrated an increase in deaths, reversing a downwards trend since 2005. I can't remember the source of this, but some speculation was that more miles were driven as the economy improved. I suppose that it will take a few more years to see where this leads, and whether or not devices may be contributing to this. My personal experience: using a Bluetooth speaker + Siri for voice texting can be pretty darn distracting. 2012: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811741.pdf 2011 and earlier: http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx

  • Amca Amca on Aug 18, 2013

    I'm in hearty agreement with your larger point here. But as to cell phones: it's undeniable that people talking on cell phones have their attention diverted. I would venture to say that 9 our of 10 people driving slowly (45 in the left lane, typically) on a busy freeway can be observed talking on cell phones. And 9 out of 10 people who fail to notice that red lights have changed are busy with their phones as well. And any urban pedestrian will tell you: drivers on cell phones often just don't see pedestrians. These are my own observations, not some massive study founded upon a thousand assumptions, any one or two of which can upset the delicate statistical balance of the desired conclusion.

  • FreedMike “…former president Dmitry Medvedev recently took a trip to China and praised the country’s cars as being on par with Mercedes-Benz.”is that before or after the Tik Tok integration?
  • Pig_Iron I'm willing to bet most of these were improperly torqued. 🔧
  • Pig_Iron You can buy a focus sedan right in the USA. It's called a maverick. 😒
  • Pig_Iron Brown bag a ploughman's lunch. 💼
  • Pig_Iron I thought IBOC was supposed to bring about a renaissance in terrestrial radio? Too bad the FCC went with a proprietary standard. I listen to AM every day because it offers superior geopolitical current affairs news and analysis, and because it offers non-English language programming also. EVs and less choice make driving drudgery. 😔