Are hands-on cell phones drivers’ best friend or weapons-of-mass-destruction? The California legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger clearly weighed in on the latter side of the argument. Last week the Governor signed into law a bill that will make it a crime to use hands-on cell phones while driving in California starting in 2008. The Governor commented, “So getting people’s hands off their phones and onto their steering wheels is going to make a big difference in road safety.”
But are cell phones a meaningful threat? Here are the numbers. In 1990, cell phones were still a novelty and only about four million were in use in America. By 2005, cell phone ownership had grown to over 150,000,000! Few if any machines in the history of the Human Race have ever exploded with such growth in such a short period of time. If 150,000,000 cell phones have impacted “road safety” as the Governor asserts, then surely accident statistics will prove it. How could it be otherwise in a country where there is an average of more than one cell phone per family?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 1990 there were 44,599 motor vehicle deaths in America. Fifteen years later – and with the addition of 150,000,000 – there were 43,443. The number of deaths declined (and did so in the face of huge increases in drivers, number of vehicles and aggregate number of miles driven). Note also that 10 percent of the fatalities in 2005 were motorcycle deaths (over 4,000), which have risen rapidly in recent years, up from about 2,000 only ten years ago. Taking out biker deaths, car and truck fatalities are way down since cell phones came into common usage. (Our Governor should be amply aware of the negative big difference motorcycles make in road safety, having suffered injury crashes on his motorcycle in both 2001 and earlier this year.)
Just as our invasion of Iraq arguably has made us less safe today than before our triumphant roll into Baghdad, will California’s misguided war on cell phones hurt rather than help? Our cops – already outnumbered, overwhelmed and unable to meet recruitment goals – will now have turn their attention to the calling habits of 23 million California drivers who make tens of millions of calls every day. Resources are invariably limited. Will our efforts to root out fantasized cell phone WMD’s give slack to our war against gangs, rapists, murderers and other felons? Should law enforcement officers risk their lives writing cell phone citations on the shoulders of busy freeways?
If vehicle safety is now a top priority for Sacramento, then go after the known killers – DUI, excessive speed, tailgaters, night driving and motorcycle safety.
At the least, the new law will be an annoyance. In the three other states that banned cell phones while driving, initial widespread compliance (accompanied by no meaningful decline in accidents) has given way to mass non-compliance (remember Jimmy Carter’s 55 mph speed limit?). A more fundamental concern is the Governor’s and Legislature’s cowing to the vocal Luddites who perpetuate the widespread myth of cell phone danger. With this issue and many others, it seems that we are drifting more and more into a kind of devolved pre-industrial, almost medieval society where major decisions at all levels of government are driven by superstition, casual perception, anecdotal appraisals and other non-empirical criteria. If California is to continue down the nanny state path, perhaps it is time to require drivers of convertibles and cars with glass sunroofs to wear helmets on the off chance a small meteor might hit them on the head. I saw a documentary on meteors on TV the other night, and it is just a matter of time before one hits.
Editor’s Note: While I welcome the views of the Mirror’s writers, I don’t always agree with them. I am very keen on this bill, having witnessed too many close calls with people driving while holding their cell phones. One hand on the wheel is not always sufficient, especially with some of the super-sized SUV’s driving around out there. Motor vehicle deaths may be down in America, but I believe this is because cars are safer, air bags, car seats for children and other factors. I don’t know the statistics for how many accidents cell phones are responsible for causing, but seeing so many drivers taking up two lanes (again, sometimes two hands on the wheel is really a good thing), I would think this number grows every year. Earpieces are very advanced these days, and even the inexpensive ones have excellent reception.