There was a time, not so long ago, when the standard response to any local calamity was accusing the village eccentric of witchcraft and doing him or her in. Today, we live in an age of reason, a time when we don't force changes down people's throats without making some serious efforts at theorizing, data collection and analysis.
Then there is New York, which will soon become the first state to ban the use of hand-held cellular phones while driving. Hands-free phones are fine, but anybody driving with a phone up to an ear is breaking the law. This move comes despite the fact that the best data on the subject is ambiguous. There's no solid statistical evidence linking accidents to cell phones.
Sure, there's lots of anecdotal evidence that using a cell phone in the car can distract drivers. But current data suggest that other distractions are much more hazardous.
We're not talking bizarro behavior here. Sure, we've all seen people do crazy things while behind the wheel. I've observed drivers shaving (with lather), changing a diaper, nursing a child, servicing a skateboard and working on what appeared to be an oil painting. I'm not even talking about stuff that's common but stupid, such as reading a magazine.
According to the vast federal database on the subject, far more drivers involved in accidents say they were distracted by activities such as changing the radio or adjusting the air conditioning than by talking on the cell phone.
Those numbers come courtesy of data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration using a system that culls information from 5,000 crashes annually involving at least one passenger vehicle that had to be towed from the scene. Since 1995, the system has tracked incidents of driver distraction. NHTSA estimates that a quarter of all accidents are the result of driver distraction.
The University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center is in the process of analyzing that data under a contract with the Automobile Assn. of America's Foundation for Traffic Safety. Jane C. Stutts, director of epidemiological research at the center, presented findings from the first phase of the study before the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit in May.
Sadly, the existence of this data apparently never reached members of the New York Legislature, who overwhelmingly approved the new restrictions in large part because of polls showing that a majority of their constituents wanted to burn witches--I mean, limit cell phone use in cars.
Stutts' study suggests that at least 13% of accidents are caused by distracted drivers. About 30% of those who were distracted said they were looking at something outside the vehicle. About 10% were fiddling with the music or talking with somebody else in the car. About 3% were adjusting their climate controls and nearly 2% were eating or drinking. And, bringing up the rear, cell phone use beat out smoking 1.5% to 0.9%.
Before you start mumbling about lies, damn lies and statistics, Stutts is the first to voice suspicion about some of those numbers, since the database indicates cell phone use as a factor in a crash eight times in 1995, 10 in 1996, eight in 1997, 10 in 1998 and six in 1999.
"We know there was a tremendous increase in the number of cell phones during this period but saw no increase at all. Common sense tells you that if cell phone use increases 50 times that should be reflected in crash causes," she said.
In other words, drivers either lied about what caused them to crash or no one asked. Many police departments don't routinely note whether a driver was using a cell phone at the time of an accident. Finally, since Stutts' data set includes only those accidents that required a tow truck, it doesn't cover the countless fender benders that tie up traffic on freeways coast to coast.
Stutts' basic message, though, is a good one: Anything you do in the car that isn't directly related to driving puts you at risk for a crash.
More to the point, she suggested that the New York law, even if well-intended, doesn't make any sense.
"We really have no good evidence that hands-free phones are any safer than standard phones," Stutts said. "Studies have generally shown that it's the cognitive demand of talking that creates the hazard. Hands-free phones are still unsafe. We need to be careful we're not sending people the wrong message."
What's the right message? "Avoid distractions. Like eating a cheeseburger."
I might add that lawmakers who are really worried about using technology to make driving safer might consider the simple mirror. Isn't it a little crazy that, here in the 21st century, when we're traveling at 70 mph down a crowded highway, we've still got to take our eyes off the road and twist around 90 degrees to make sure nobody is next to us before we change lanes?
Where's a magic wand when you need one?
Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.
* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A.; T6