Last week, when pooh-poohing the proposed ban on all use of cellphones by motorists, I noted that the head of the National Transportation Safety Board seemed to be playing fast and loose with the statistics about distracted driving. Apparently, columnist Mona Charen had the same thought, and she followed up on it in a piece for the Washington Examiner.
The relevant portion:
NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman … stated flatly that 3,000 people lost their lives last year due to texting in the driver’s seat.
Is that true? No. In a detailed report on distracted driving issued earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that only 995 deaths resulted from distraction by cell phones in 2010. The 3,000-person figure refers to all distracted driving.
The Chicken Littles in D.C. notwithstanding, the roads are getting safer, not more dangerous. The number of car accident fatalities has been dropping steadily for decades. In 1990, 44,599 people lost their lives in crashes.
In 2010, 32,885 were killed — a decrease that is even more significant considering the rise in the total number of licensed drivers and cars on the road. According to the NHTSA, there were 1.7 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven in 1994, but only 1.14 in 2009, the lowest level in 60 years.
The stats on distracted driving do not break down further to tell us which ones involved hands-free devices, as opposed to a driver holding a phone and talking or texting on it. Before any blanket ban proposal can be taken seriously, such a breakdown should be made available.
Here are some other data points: In 1990, there were 302 crashes and 151 injured persons per million miles traveled. By 2009, those rates had fallen to 186 and 75, respectively.
That’s a 38 percent decline in the rate of crashes, and a 50 percent decline in the rate of injuries — in addition to the 33 percent decline in the rate of fatalities. In fact, there were more fatalities in 1960 than in 2009, even though the number of vehicle-miles traveled quadrupled during the past half-century.
So, it’s not as if the crash rate is holding steady but, due to improved vehicle safety, more people are surviving wrecks. Just as with the number of fatalities, the absolute numbers of crashes and injuries have fallen during the past two decades.
If lawmakers want traffic officers to be even more vigilant about looking for motorists driving recklessly, and if they want to enact stiffer fines for reckless driving for any reason — whether distracted, by a phone or something else, or not — fine. But a blanket ban on cellphone use by drivers simply is not justified by the evidence.
– By Kyle Wingfield