Texts, Lies and Distracted Driving

The National Transportation safety Board (NTSB) is supposed to be “an independent federal agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents” that, among other things, conducts “objective, precise accident investigations and safety studies.” So why is NTSB Chair A.P. Hersman falsely claiming that 3,000 people died in traffic accidents last year due to the use of cellphones or other “portable electronic devices” while driving? As Walter Olson notes, the 3,000-death figure is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s estimate for deaths due to all sorts distracted driving, and only one-third of these deaths were attributed to the use of portable electronic devices.

Even though highway fatalities are down, distracted driving is a problem. But why are cellphones, PDAs, etc. any worse than other sources of distraction? Is the driver who quickly glances at a text more dangerous than the one applying makeup, shaving, reading directions struggling with a map, playing with the radio, or looking at the passenger while immersed in conversation? I don’t think so.  Indeed, the federal government’s own data shows other problems, such as aggressive driving, remain a greater problem than driver distraction, and passengers appear to be a greater source of distraction than electronic devices. Nonetheless, as Glenn Reynolds notes, the NTSB is exaggerating the relative risk of using such devices — and misrepresenting the causes of a 2010 pileup in Missouri — to push for a federal ban.

State and local governments are fully capable of adopting such policies, and many have. Yet, as Marc Scribner notes, it’s not clear such bans actually reduce crash risks (in part because some drivers respond by engaging in surreptitious texting). This doesn’t mean all such laws are a bad idea, but there is no need for a federal ban.   State and local authorities are fully capable of acting and continued state and local experimentation will help uncover what sorts of restrictions do the most to improve traffics safety. In the meantime, the NTSB should top  misrepresenting facts to support an unnecessary federal ban, particularly if it’s going to fulfill its mission of being “objective” and “independent.”

UPDATE: To clarify the above, last week the NTSB called for the “first-ever nationwide ban” on the use of portable electronic devic es while driving.  The NTSB is also urging state governments to prohibit texting and other electronic device use while driving.  (Thirty-five states have such rules in place now.)  In addition, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called for Congress to enact a federal ban.