Massachusetts: Go Slow on Disconnecting Drivers

Gattuso and Rupert Op-Ed in The Lowell Sun<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />



New York startled the nation last month when it enacted the nation’s first statewide ban on cellphone use while driving.  Now Massachusetts may follow suit.  With legislators praising the move made by New York, a renewed push is being made to pass similar legislation.  Rep. Peter Koutoujian (D-Newton), co-sponsor of a bill before the Ways and Means Committee that would impose restrictions similar to those in New York, said, “I applaud the New York Legislature and I call on the Massachusetts Legislature to do [the] same.”


At first blush, this seems like an easy issue. The image is clear:  a car speeding down a busy highway, zigzagging unpredictably from lane to lane. Inside, some yuppie engaged in animated conversation on his cellphone, oblivious to the other cars around him.   Seems like an open and shut case for a ban: if the government has any role at all, it’s to protect its citizens from the dangerous actions of others.  But first blushes can be misleading.  As it turns out, the case isn’t so clear – and new restrictions could end up hurting drivers more than helping them.


Supporters of cellphone restrictions point to a 1997 New England Journal of Medicine study as evidence that cell phones and driving don’t mix.  The study states that the distraction of using a cellphone can increase the chance of an accident by up to fourfold.  The study also points out that the numbers of accidents resulting from cell phone use have increased steadily each year. 


But is this risk greater than that of other driver distractions? According to a report released earlier this year by the American Automobile Association, cell phone use is only a minor source of distraction – accounting for only 1.5 percent of distraction related accidents.  It’s swamped by any number of other common distractions.  Talking to other occupants, for instance, leads to more than 10 percent, while adjusting the radio, CD player, and/or cassette player is implicated in almost 12 percent of distraction related accidents.  This suggests that legislators ought to be more concerned about soccer moms driving carloads of kids to practice than they should be about people talking on their cell phones.


At the same time, the costs of cellphone restrictions may be larger than generally realized.  One recent study by Robert Hahn of the American Enterprise Institute and Paul Tetlock of Harvard University found that the benefits of a cellphone ban could be dwarfed by its costs to drivers.  The study estimates that a ban could impose $25 billion worth of costs on society, while saving only about $4.6 billion.


Some proposals – such as the one pending in Massachusetts – would allow cellphone use if a “hands free” device is used.  This would reduce the costs, but Hahn and Tetlock find that the losses to society would still be twice as high as the benefits.


The costs aren’t just a matter of dollars and cents.  While proponents of restrictions point to the very real safety hazards of cellphones, there are very real safety benefits as well.  Cellphones are increasingly becoming a primary lifeline for drivers in distress – over 98,000 emergency calls were made from cellphones daily.  How many of those would not have been made if cellphone use were restricted?


The impulse of legislators to regulate cellphones is understandable.  Who wants to defend the guy on the cellphone who just cut you off?  But, a rush to judgment could do more harm than good.  For that reason, even the National Highway Traffic Safety has said legislation “would be premature.”  Going farther, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis warned that public policy decisions made now “are likely to produce ill-informed decisions that may do society more harm than good.”


Rep. Koutoujian and the Massachusetts Legislature would be well served to heed these cautionary words before following the trail blazed by the state of New York.  Rushed action based on feelings – rather than facts – will not help Massachusetts’s drivers.


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