Cell phone ban distracts from true danger

The Nanny State is wagging its finger at us again. This time it’s the National Transportation Safety Board, which wants to ban all use of cellphones by drivers — even the “hands-free” kind that are increasingly popular — supposedly to cut down on traffic accidents. Many new cars even come with Bluetooth devices that automatically interface with your phone, allowing you to talk to a voice seemingly inside the car.

Now, according to the NTSB, even using a hands-free device isn’t good enough. “This is a ridiculous Nanny State thing,” Marc Scribner told us; he’s a transportation policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. He said the device used isn’t the problem, but the element of distraction to the driver.

He said a total ban on drivers using phones would be difficult to enforce. How could a police officer tell if the person was talking with a hands-free device, singing to a tune on the radio or conversing with a passenger?

Scribner pointed to a September 2010 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Distracted Driving and Driver, Roadway and Environmental Factors.” It found that conversing on a phone was the cause of about 3.4 percent of vehicle crashes, the second-most common cause. But the most-frequent cause of accidents was “conversing with a passenger,” at 15.9 percent. Kids getting into a shouting match in the back seat will do that.

“If they’re so concerned about phones being distracting, why aren’t they also talking about banning conversation in cars?” he said.

The fact is that, despite all the distractions in cars, including more phones, auto fatalities have declined in recent years. On Dec. 8, the NHTSA reported that traffic fatalities declined 2.9 percent in 2010, “to 32,885 for the year, the lowest level since 1949.” In the intervening 61 years, the U.S. population has more than doubled, and people are driving more than ever. The reason for lower fatalities: Cars and roads are much safer, and get safer every year.

Although the safety board’s nonbinding recommendation can be rejected by the states, Nanny can creep up on us. If we’re not careful, a federal mandate might hitch federal highway funds to total bans on phone use. Meanwhile, New Mexico and Texas should not act on this recommendation. This time, let’s leave Nanny at home.