Banishing Risk?

Banishing risk is a tricky business — even when you’re pretty clear about the risks. Efforts to reduce the risk of accidents that cell phones add to driving provides a case in point. A new study published in Transportation Research brings further evidence that handheld cell phone bans are doing nothing to reduce traffic accidents.

When the first such data surfaced a few years ago, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration pushed back hard, saying:

It is irresponsible to suggest that laws banning cell phone use while driving have zero effect on the number of crashes on our nation’s roadways. A University of Utah study shows that using a cell phone while driving can be just as dangerous and deadly as driving drunk. We know that by enacting and enforcing tough laws, states have reduced the number of crashes leading to injuries and fatalities. We know that high-visibility campaigns and enforcement, like Click It or Ticket and Drunk Driving. Over The Limit. Under Arrest has had a positive influence on driver behavior.

That’s why seat belt use is at an all-time high of 84 percent and drunk driving is declining. These improvements didn’t happen overnight. It took strong laws, enforcement, education and personal responsibility to bring us where we are today, and still there is more work to do. When it comes to distracted driving, we are only at the starting gate.

All that is true. But with at least two studies now showing little impact, a basic question remains unanswered: will these cell phone bans make a difference? If not, a change in strategy will be needed.

Risk is stubborn. The benefits are great when evidence-based policies can erase it. And sometimes policy experiments are necessary. But the results must be measured and corrections made when experiments fail.

It’s true for traffic safety and it’s true for our ongoing experiments in addressing obesity.

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” — Oscar Wilde

Click here to read more in the Washington Post, here to read the study in Transportation Research, here to read about the earlier study, and here to read a study of the impact on cell phone use in Traffic Injury Prevention.

Moving Violation, photograph © Ed from Ohio / flickr

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2 Responses to “Banishing Risk?”

  1. July 22, 2014 at 10:43 am, Susan Caswell said:

    Your use of the picture of a child driving is inappropriate for the content of the article.

    • July 22, 2014 at 7:30 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for your comment Susan. Perhaps we should have labeled the picture with a disclaimer like “Simulation: do not attempt.” The photographer intended the image to be a caricature of a risky situation, so extreme that no one would take it seriously. The child was of course not driving the car, and the car was not in motion.