Why Did The Government's Scary Cell Phone Study Only Look At Stopped Drivers?

This morning we reported on a study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that said 660,000 U.S. drivers are using their cell phones behind the wheel at any given point during the day. But when you read the fine print, the story changes a bit: the NHTSA got this data from looking only at drivers who were stopped at red lights or stop signs.

That's right: the study counted people who were using their phones while the car was stopped, not while they were driving. This distinction was pointed out to us by Juan Barnett, aka DC Auto Geek, who notes that keeping that in mind makes things quite different.

From the study:

The survey data is collected by trained data collectors at probabilistically sampled intersections controlled by stop signs or stoplights, where data collectors observe, from the roadside, drivers and other occupants of passenger vehicles having no commercial or government markings. Data is collected between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Only stopped vehicles are observed to allow time to collect the variety of information required by the survey, including subjective assessments of occupants’ age and race. Observers collect data on the driver, right-front passenger, and up to two passengers in the second row of seats. Observers do not interview occupants, so that NOPUS can capture the untainted behavior of occupants.

These observers measured three types of activity by drivers and passengers: holding phones to their ears, speaking with headsets on, and "visibly manipulating hand-held devices."

You won't find me arguing that it's somehow safe to use a phone or electronic device in the car. It's always best to put that stuff away for good while the car is on. But I feel like there is a HUGE difference between texting while driving and checking your phone when you're at a red light. I know I've done that, but then I put it away when it's time to drive. Hasn't everyone done that?

Presumably, some of those drivers will continue their phone conversation or their device usage when the light turns green. But I'm sure that a good many of them will put their phones down and concentrate on driving. This study does not seem to recognize those people.

So what does all this mean? To me it means that those scary statistics from this morning may not be so scary at all, at least until the NHTSA comes up with some way to measure only people who are using phones or other devices when the car is actually moving.

Until then this may be yet more evidence that the NHTSA's ongoing war on "distracted driving" may just be a lot of hot air. It's dangerous, certainly, but it may not be the massive crisis that the government makes it out to be.

What do you all think? Is texting while driving the same thing as checking your phone at a red light?