The top auto safety expert for the nation's insurance companies says U.S. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood is getting "irrational" about the dangers of distracted driving. His explanation: Texting and talking may just replace other bad driving habits, like reading newspapers.
Earlier this year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety laid out its case that new state bans on hand-held cellphone use and texting while behind the wheel hadn't led to a reduction in crashes, and questioned whether putting so much energy into such efforts wasn't its own kind of distraction. "It's as if there has to be a villain in a black hat to drum up enough support to get anything done," said IIHS President Adrian Lund last month. "It's an irrational way to go about highway safety policy."
Lund's comments have drawn a sharp response from the Obama administration, which has plunged ahead with its distracted driving summit featuring an ever-broadening survey of possible contributors to the problem, including cellphone makers and auto companies.
To talk about the differences, Jalopnik rang up Lund, who forced us to pull over the Infiniti FX50 S we were driving before he would talk to us.
Jalopnik: Have you seen any recent link between cellphone bans and crashes?
Lund: We're not saying cellphones aren't distracting. They are. There's no doubt in my mind there are crashes occurring out there because people are on their phones or texting.
The issue that we have is what that means for the driving public. The question is how are these new distractions, cellphones and texting, being integrated into the other things drivers do when they drive. Is this adding to their distractions, or is it merely substituting for other kind of distractions? If it's only the latter, it suggests we shouldn't see too big an increase in crashes, and indeed we haven't. More than that, it also suggests that if you get people to stop talking on their cellphones or texting, but not addressing any other kind of distractions, then they're likely to go back on them.
If that's true, then a ban on cellphone use wouldn't have that much effect, and that's what we see.
Jalopnik: Isn't it possible that crashes and fatalities would be declining at a greater pace if it weren't for cellphones?
Lund: That is possible. These aren't random experiments that we're carrying out. I will say we think that's an unlikely explanation because the bans aren't having any effect on crashes. We did see a decrease in cellphone use, but we didn't see crashes go down. Cellphone use goes up, and cellphone use goes down, and there doesn't seem to be any reaction in the crash statistics we see.
Jalopnik: So how can it be that cellphone use is dangerous and not have an effect on crashes?
Lund: Maybe people who talk on cellphones are less likely to read the newspaper as they drive to work, maybe they're less likely to tune their iPods or shave on the way to work. Insurance companies have in their files (all sorts of) excuses people give about why they crashed - it's bugs and bees and dogs and cats and shaving. What we don't understand is how they integrate this new distraction of being on the cellphone and texting. If all it does is substitute for these other behaviors, it's not surprising.
We did expect to see an increase in crashes based on earlier studies from risk of cellphones.
Jalopnik: I'm sitting in a car with Bluetooth, navigation and a host of other hands-free technology. How do you think that will affect crash rates?
Lund: We've also had GPS coming into cars and a lot of other technology, and we don't see an increase in crashes. We need to be a little humbled by this and reevaluate the way people are using this technology in cars. We need to remember that distracted driving didn't begin with cellphones. Go back to the 1970s, when you looked at crashes the proximate cause was driver error, and usually it goes back to the driver not seeing something, which is distraction.
The DOT is absolutely right that distracted driving is an issue, and we need to address it. Our problem is when we look at laws, they don't seem an effective strategy for addressing it. We are hopeful some crash avoidance technology will be more successful.
Let's face it: Why do we have forward collision warning systems and lane departure warning systems? It's because drivers get distracted, and the idea of these systems is to get drivers attention back on the road when they wander into dangerous situation.
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