In-car gadgets - less dangerous than you might think

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- First cell phones and now GPS gadgets are blamed for causing car accidents. But if that's true, then why has the number of crashes declined during the period when cell phone and GPS use went from zero to millions?

Pandering politicians have been scoring cheap political points for years by banning some or all use of cell phones by drivers. California recently banned the holding of cell phones while driving.

The assumption behind these bans is that cell phones cause accidents.

Now, a new survey carried out in Britain by Direct Line insurance conducted on behalf of a UK publication called the Mirror claims that the use of GPS has caused 300,000 crashes. The Mirror carried the story under the alarming headline, "SatNav danger revealed." GPS is to blame, according to the survey, for five million drivers being sent the wrong way down a one-way street. Some 1.5 million drivers claim to have veered dangerously or illegally in traffic because of GPS.

Pretty alarming. Unfortunately (for the professional alarmists), it's all a bunch of baloney.

Regarding cell phones, anytime there's an accident where the driver is using a cell phone, the phone is blamed. Of course, using the cell phone caused the accident, right? What else could have caused it?

Well, a lot of things -- namely the same things that cause accidents when cell phones are not involved.

Let's say that at any given moment, 15 percent of drivers are yammering away on their cell phones while driving. And let's say that there are on average 10,000 accidents per day in the United States (I'm making these numbers up). If cell phones did not in any way cause accidents, then you would expect that 1,500 accidents per day would involve drivers who were talking on their cell phones at the time of the crash.

Yet all 1,500 of those accidents would be falsely attributed to cell phone use.

But let's say more accidents per day involved drivers using phones. Let's say it averaged 2,000. But let's also say that 5,000 accidents per day were caused by distracted drivers -- emotionally upset, or listening to the radio, or some other distraction. And let's say that some of these 5,000 distracted drivers happened to choose the cell phone as today's distraction, and that without their phones they would be distracted by something else and crashing just the same. Are *those* crashes *caused* by cell phones or distracted drivers?

Hold your hate mail. I'm not saying cell phones don't contribute to accidents. I'm simply saying that the use of a cell phone during an accident doesn't at all prove that the phone caused the accident. Accidents happen. And people use cell phones. And sometimes both happen at the same time. That doesn't mean the phone caused the crash.

The real test is to see if crashes go up when cell phone driving goes up. Has the rate of accidents steeply risen with cell phone use in the last ten years? It turns out that accidents have declined during the period when cell phone use went from near zero to almost universal. (Update: Link goes to data on accident injuries, not accidents.) Statistically speaking, it would be safer to conclude that cell phones somehow reduce accidents. Of course, there are other factors involved, but you get my point. Ten years ago almost nobody talked on cell phones while driving. Today, millions do. Yes, the number of accidents involving a phone has risen. But because the total number of accidents has declined, you can't blame all those cell phone accidents on phones.

And the same thing goes for accidents "caused" by the use of GPS devices. In order for GPS to have caused 300,000 crashes, the total number of crashes in the UK would need to have increased by that much in the past five years. Has it?

The problem with the Mirror survey is that if Uncle Fester gives you bad directions, and you drive down the wrong way of a one-way street and crash into somebody, nobody blames Uncle Fester. And if you're not paying attention because of the radio, or your yammering spouse, or because you're hung over, nobody blames the radio, the spouse, or the booze. But if the driver is following GPS instructions, then suddenly any crashes that happen are the fault of GPS.

Electronic gadgets are unique in that their use at the time of an accident is enough evidence to assign blame.

I believe the reason for this is a neo-Luddite impulse that courses through the veins of the majority of people who didn't grow up with gadgets. Electronic gadgets are alien, and therefore suspect.

For many people, it feels good to blame gadgets. And if gadgets really do lead to huge increases in car accidents, by all means let's ban them. But let's not toss reason out the car window, too.

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