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Cell-phone bill based on faith, not research, with James Prieger (San Francisco Chronicle) September 14, 2006

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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With the California Legislature processing more than a thousand bills in the waning weeks of the session, dare we suggest one more? How about a law requiring that all bills be supported by objective research and solid evidence before they can be considered? Such a standard would have precluded passage of the “California Wireless Telephone Safety Act of 2006” which has cleared both the Assembly and the Senate and awaits Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger’s signature. This bill, requiring drivers to use hands-free devices when operating cell phones, may have a superficial appeal, but it is not supported by research and should not be enacted into law.

Assemblyman Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, had introduced the bill unsuccessfully five times, but the sixth time was the charm. Finally, legislators decided, “something” needed to be done about the distraction of cell phones in automobiles, so this bill will charge the whopping penalty of $20 for a first offense and $50 for additional violations. Just to be sure it doesn’t really hurt, a proposal to add a penalty point on the driver’s record was dropped. Oh, the bill doesn’t apply to two-way radios, some farming activities, driving while on private property or in emergencies either.

A few obvious problems come to mind. Will police neglect weightier matters to issue these $20 tickets or will hand-held cell phones be overlooked just as is the California rolling stop? What about other distractions such as those drivers we’ve all seen shaving, applying makeup, reading books or disciplining children? Perhaps they will be covered by next year’s “Don’t Drive With a Supersized Beverage Act of 2007.” At least ban the sale of the “Auto Exec Car Desk” and the “Wheelmate” that attaches to your laptop computer to the steering wheel (no, we’re not kidding).

But the real crime here is the willingness of legislatures to pass a law purporting to restrain drivers without having any solid basis in evidence or research. Academic studies have consistently shown no real difference in the risk of accidents from hands-free compared with hand-held cell phones. Major studies published in 2005 (AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies) and 2006 (Human Factors) confirm that restricting hand-held cell phones does not eliminate problems or reduce accident risk in any statistically significant way. Similarly, states such as New York that have tried this approach have not experienced any notable gains.

Why not? Because the underlying problem is driver inattention, which is a mental issue, not the physical act of holding a small phone. As Assemblyman Jim Battin, R-La Quinta, noted, “The real public-safety issue that needs to be considered is driving while distracted. This legislation does nothing to address that.” Supporters of the bill respond with faith-based, rather than research-based rhetoric. The bill’s author says that accidents by drivers using hand-held cell phones outnumber those with hands-free devices, ignoring the usage imbalance between the two. A co-author reports that when you have a cell phone “attached to your ear, you can’t see out of that side.” What is she using: a Maxwell Smart shoe phone from the 1960s?

If we want to make the roads safer and prevent accidents, policymakers should not rely on superficial impressions or personal experience, but rather engage in rigorous study. Where could the next dollar be spent save the most lives? Likely it would be in drunken-driving enforcement, the use of seat belts, or child safety, but let’s do the research. If we want to tackle distractions, let’s look at the whole list, not just a piece of it, and let’s be serious about it, not just “do something” that is unlikely to yield results. Finally, we must acknowledge that such legislation also has a cost to society, in this case restraining driver freedom without any real promise of favorable results.

So, governor, can you hear us now? If so, let’s send that bill back to the Legislature and ask that some real policy work be done.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-7.

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