It has been a banner six months for the foes of wireless-communication-while-driving. As of January 1, 2009, text messaging behind the wheel became a crime, a legal sequel to last July’s ban on hands-on cell phones.
The sudden criminalization of routine activities engaged by tens of millions of Californians daily begs the question: is wireless-while-driving really a “weapon of mass destruction” or the stuff of unfounded hysteria?
Facts have also arrived in the last six months. The CHP and sister state agencies issued their annual report of driving safety in the Golden State. The August 28 press release accompanying the report is headlined “California Roadways Have Never Been Safer.”
“It’s important to note that these aren’t just abstract numbers. They represent lives saved of real people in California,” stated CHP Deputy Commissioner Skip Carter.
The CHP data covers 2007, the final year when we could legally chat and text behind the wheel to our heart’s content, and chat and text we did. There are about as many cell phones as there are residential toilets, and the phones probably get used more often. Few technologies have arrived in such immense numbers in such a short period of time. By 2007, tens of millions of California motorists sent billions and billions of communications while driving. If wireless-while-driving posed any credible threat to safety then accidents, injuries and deaths should have skyrocketed in recent years, not declined. How can it be otherwise?
It is important to note that driving safety is rich with voluminous scientific field data. It has been a national priority for over a century and myriad agencies – government, academic, insurance, automotive and aftermarket manufacturers, nonprofits and others – spend billions annually statistically tracking threats. Google the CHP data and the risk factors are clearly identified and they remain fairly constant over the decades: DUI and excessive speed are primary culprits. “Distraction” of any cause (not just wireless but eating, shaving, lap dogs, and God knows what else) is so minor that it doesn’t even show up in standard data printouts. A recent article in the January 3, 2009, L.A. Times cited cell phones as a cause of less than two-tenths of one percent of California traffic fatalities.
So what’s the potential harm of the new laws?
We’ve all seen jerks driving dangerously, before and after the wireless revolution – and driving while dangerously distracted has always been a crime. The problem was not a lack of laws, but a lack of enforcement of existing laws. You may have noticed that our leaders in Sacramento offered no additional funding to enforce the new wireless laws. We are asking a fixed, even declining resource due to budget cuts – law enforcement – to take on an immense task while hopefully still enforcing other laws, laws that address the real dangers of driving. A key statistic to watch as we lurch forward is DUI arrests and there is some indication that they are down since last July’s cell phone law. That may mean that either people have quit drinking (unlikely during a recession), or that the CHP was busy writing 48,0000 cell phone tickets while the drunks went weaving by, hopefully not to run over school children in a crosswalk.
Yes, Virginia, there really was a time when our leaders used science and fact to formulate policy, an Age of Empiricism. Now Sacramento is cowing to, even encouraging, the hysteria surrounding wireless-while-driving as a WMD. Maybe it’s time for the legislature to stop sticking voodoo pins in our flip phones and Blackberries, and for our “kindergarten cop” Governor to find a legacy beyond the creation of a nanny state that treats us all like five year olds who cannot walk and talk at the same time.