A few months ago, tooling along in my brand new Honda (aka "cute car"), I came to a stop at a red light. On my right, a police cruiser with lights flashing was investigating a fender bender. A total of three cars, the two that were in the accident plus the police car, were off on the shoulder. I was waiting for the light to change when -- bam -- someone crashed into me from behind. One of the police officers instructed us to pull over to the side of the road near the other two cars. "Everybody OK?" My husband and I nodded. "I saw the whole thing," the officer said. "So this won't take long."
As we were filling out paper work and exchanging insurance information (the other driver was mortified and cooperative), yet another car rear-ended a third car waiting at the red light. The road was so strewn with red and white glass that it looked like a holiday display. When my husband and I expressed amazement at the three crashes within the space of about eight minutes, the officer shrugged. "It happens all the time."
The cause of the second two accidents (I don't know what caused the first.): "distracted driving." Both drivers were "rubbernecking" instead of paying attention to the road in front of them. By the logic that the National Transportation Safety Board applied this week in its recommendation to ban all cell phone use by drivers, perhaps we should also ban police cars?
The accident that led to the NTSBs sweeping recommendation was similar to the one I just described, except that it was more serious. In Gray Summit, Mo., in 2010, a distracted driver crashed into a truck. Then, in an accordion pattern, two school busses crashed into him. Two people were killed and 35 injured.
The NTSB investigated and determined that the original crash was due to texting on the part of a distracted driver. As for the school bus drivers, one was found to be rubbernecking, and the other neglected "a timely brake application." Well, yes.
Along with suggestions that Missouri modify its school bus inspection regime, the NTSB recommended, to the entire nation, that we "ban the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices," including hands-free cell phones.
Is there an epidemic of fatal crashes caused by texting and talking on cell phones? NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman implied as much. She noted that cell phones and Personal Digital Assistants are ubiquitous. She cited a study suggesting that 21 percent of drivers in the Washington, D.C. area admit to texting while driving, and she 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.
Alcohol related fatalities are also down. In 1999, 22,587 people died in crashes in which alcohol was a factor. By 2004, again, despite the increase in cars and drivers, the number was 16,694. But here's an arresting statistic: In both years, men were almost three times as likely as women to be drunk drivers. Shall we ban men behind the wheel?
The NHTSA is panicking about cell phones. Yet another report from the NHTSA (there are so many) issued earlier this month found that only five percent of drivers have been observed holding cell phones to their ears while driving, and only .9 percent were seen to be "manipulating" a hand-held device.
People do other stupid things behind the wheel, including but definitely not limited to eating, arguing with passengers, petting their dogs and writing government safety recommendations.
There would be zero traffic fatalities if we simply banned cars. But the freedom and conveniences are seen to outweigh the cost in lost lives. Preventing the (perhaps) three percent of traffic fatalities caused by cell phones is nanny statism at its worst.