Deactivating cell phones while driving is pointless

Alex B. Berezow Editor, Real Clear Science
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If you thought the TSA body scans and sensual pat downs went too far, then you will be displeased to learn that the federal government is now considering using technology that will deactivate your cell phone while you are in a moving vehicle. This is in response to the fact that, according to Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood, 5,500 people were killed last year due to distracted driving.

Admittedly, that is a very troubling statistic. However, a 2009 study commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that 80% of all traffic accidents are caused by drivers who are eating. Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: 80% of all traffic accidents are caused by drivers who are busy cramming food into their pie-hole instead of focusing on the road.

This same study determined coffee to be the #1 cause of food-related crashes, with soup, tacos, chili dogs, and hamburgers rounding out the top five. That means Starbucks, Burger King, and your grandma’s chicken noodle recipe are killing far more people on the road than cell phones. Yet, there is no public outrage over drive-through windows and no federal threat to take away your cappuccino. Cell phones have become the bogeyman du jour, and policymakers will certainly not let pesky facts stand in the way of a moral crusade.

The knee-jerk response to ban anything that poses merely a minor threat is the poster child of well-intentioned but misguided policies. Interestingly, policies attempting to achieve harmonious highways have already been put into effect with counterproductive results. A recent study showed that three of four states which enacted texting-while-driving bans actually saw an increase in the number of car accidents, presumably because drivers placed their phones in their laps to avoid detection by the police. The point is that people will find a way to circumvent the law. Blocking Big Brother? Rest assured there will be an app for that.

What the feds do not seem to understand is that the deactivation of cell phones fails to address the underlying problem, which is distracted driving. Cell phones are not the only things that distract drivers. Food, GPS, radios, portable DVD players, reading, lighting cigarettes, unruly children, shaving, putting on makeup, and daydreaming (or some combination thereof) can all cause traffic accidents. Therefore, instead of looking to ban items, the proper policy should be to ban behavior. Instead of creating a growing list of vehicular contraband, a law banning distracted driving would likely be more effective and simpler to implement. After all, distracted drivers are easy enough to identify: They are the ones with their left turn signal flashing, going 45 in the fast lane.

Unfortunately, our government has a long history of implementing ineffective solutions to mischaracterized problems. How else could one explain the ban on Four Loko and other alcoholic energy drinks? Have the feds never heard of rum and Coke? Or Irish coffee? Besides, the problem is not alcohol and caffeine; the problem is irresponsible drinking by immature college students. Banning Four Loko — or whatever new, popular drink will replace it — simply avoids addressing the real problem.

Let us hope policymakers wise up before implementing such a pointless law. But if they do, at least that will free up your hand to grab that chili dog.

Alex B. Berezow is the Editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington.