Distracted from the data

Chip Powell is an information-technology professional working in downtown Sacramento and (believe it or not) a bicycle commuter

Senator Joe Simitian’s Senate Bill 1613, which proposes a ban on handheld cell-phone usage while driving but still allows hands-free usage, is impotent legislation without data to back up claims that such a law will save lives. Studies have shown that using hands-free cell phones while driving is no safer than using handheld phones. The danger is driver distraction, not the absence of one hand on the wheel.

In a recent 10-month period, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) claims 978 automobile collisions occurred while drivers used handheld phones, and 110 occurred while drivers used hands-free devices. Senator Simitian claims this proves hands-free devices are safer; however, this is an irresponsible claim, as a causal relationship is utterly absent. I could argue that of 1,000 collisions, 995 drivers wore white shoes, while five wore purple. Therefore, purple shoes make for safer drivers. The reason fewer collisions involving hands-free devices occurred is more likely because fewer drivers use such devices in the first place.

Other states have passed laws banning drivers using handheld cell phones while allowing hands-free usage. Where are the data proving traffic fatalities have decreased as a direct result of such laws? Such data were available in abundance after seatbelt laws took effect, which is an example of good compulsory safety law with measurable benefits.

If cell phones truly contribute in significant numbers to fatal traffic accidents in California, and if our citizens seriously wish to reduce those accidents, the devices should be banned in cars altogether. But consider that by the CHP’s same study, cell-phone usage was a contributing factor in only 3.6 percent of traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers; 96.4 percent were distracted by other factors, such as eating, dealing with children and talking to passengers, among others. Will all such activities be categorically banned while driving? Why not simply outlaw the motor vehicles themselves, since they are by definition the common denominator in all traffic accidents?

S.B. 1613, which requires drivers to fumble for headsets while still allowing them to scroll through their phones’ address books, punch in the numbers and engage in distracting conversations, is a ridiculous idea and an insult to anyone looking to use real data, and real results, to solve real problems. California’s elected representatives should be smart enough not to support such a measure.