Friday, January 09, 2004

Safety fascists strike again... 

"Handheld cell phones may be banned" in Los Angeles.

This is an astonishingly silly idea, and a particularly egregious example of how sloppy thinking about risk results in laws that take away small, day-to-day freedoms.

Is holding cell phones in cars dangerous? You certainly can't tell from the trends in national accident data. During the cell phone era (which we can reasonably define as something like 1988 or 1990 to the present), driving became safer by every measure. Not only did deaths and injuries decline in absolute terms (continuing a long-established trend), but they declined as a percentage of vehicle miles driven, which is probably the better metric. Is that only because our cars are getting safer? Unlikely, since accidents that involved only "property damage" (which I take to mean damage to the vehicle but no human) also declined during that period. So to support a law like the one proposed in LA (or already in force in New York State), you have to believe that the decline in accidents, deaths and injuries would have been even greater during the last 15 years were it not for the scourage of cell phones. That seems like a stretch, but it might be the case. Fortunately, the sponsor of the ordinance in LA provides us with information that reveals how silly the law is.

According to the LA Times, "Councilman Tom LaBonge, who pushed the council to endorse the state bill, pointed to a CHP study that found cellphones contributed to 11% of accidents blamed on distracted drivers in a six-month period." So cell phones in general -- not the holding of phones, mind you, but cell phones in general -- contributed to one ninth of the subset of accidents blamed on distracted drivers. LaBonge (TigerHawk thinks that "LaBonge" would be a great brand name for a new line of weed paraphernalia) wants to give the LAPD cause to pull people over because of a fraction of a fraction of a declining number, and it isn't even clear that his law will do anything. If LA enacts LaBonge's ordinance, how many drivers will fumble with coffee, a McMuffin or a mascara wand in the hand now liberated from the burden of their cell phone? Sure, the percentage of "distracted driver" accidents caused by cell phones will decline from 11%, which will allow the safety fascists to claim victory, but who is going to measure McMuffin risk?


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