Monday, December 19, 2011

Banning phones and the NTSB

Mark Twain once said there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. How true this is!

A lot has been made about the NTSB's recent urging of states to ban all phone use while driving. It was almost certain to be a knee-jerk reaction to the school bus accident that made headlines around the country, not part of any rational analysis, and that turns out to be the case. Wash Examiner emphasis mine.
    (The head of the NTSB) 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.
When 995 people die in a year from distraction by cell phones, it is a non-issue and needs no further discussion. It certainly doesn't require any bans or legislation. After all, 25,000 people die each year in the U.S. from influenza and pneumonia, and 14,000 die from falling down.

Sadly, this type of government witchcraft is nothing new. Remember the old slogan from government safety wonks, "Speed Kills"? Turns out, speed doesn't kill. When states raised freeway speed limits from 55 to 65, the death rate dropped. Also, the numbers for that misguided campaign were fiddled with, just as cellphone distraction numbers are being fiddled with today. Here's how:

The gubment, in the "speed kills" propaganda war, was gathering statistics in a misleading manner. If a driver went through a green light at 1mph over the speed limit, and was broadsided by a driver who ran the red, it was called a "speed related incident". We suffered for many, many years under a 55mph speed limit on freeways, partly because of this numerical gamesmanship.

Most "safety" legislation is a knee-jerk reaction to one specific incident, not as a result of meaningful study. I propose a cooling off period for legislators, requiring a specific time to elapse before a new bill can be submitted. This would stop a lot of the bad laws -- the ones that restrict our freedoms simply because a few people acted irresponsibly or were merely victims of bad luck.

These "safety" laws are not about public safety, especially if they're designed to save just a few hundred people a year. If not public safety, then what? Re-election. Legislators can get some publicity by doing something "for the children" and for "public safety" by authoring knee-jerk legislation.

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