TCS Daily

Hard Cell

By Iain Murray - March 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Several states, such as New York, have introduced bans on the use of cell phones while driving. The reasoning is quite simple. Using a cell phone while driving may create a distraction that leads to the driver becoming involved in an accident, with potentially fatal results. On public health grounds, therefore, a ban on cell phone use seems justifiable. Two recent studies, however, cast doubt on whether this simple logic is as convincing as it seems on first sight. One finds that, at least on economic grounds, a ban will achieve little. The other suggests that cell phones are being unfairly singled out and that we might think twice if we were to consider the implications of the logic behind the ban.

The first study was a cost-benefit analysis of the use of cell phones while driving. While cell phones do cause economic damage in the cost of accidents, both in terms of lives lost and more general expense such as the cost of emergency service response, insurance pay outs and so on, they also do provide economic benefit. People value their time, and so anything that saves time presents an economic benefit. This goes as much for using a cell phone to arrange a meeting while driving as it does for a new road that gets people to their destinations faster. We have a pretty good measure of the economic value people place on the use of cell phones in the amount they are willing to pay for them. From that, we can work out how much benefit accrues to the nation in the use of cell phones while driving.

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis has undertaken two estimates of the costs and benefits associated with cell phone use while driving. The first, released in July 2000, found that the cost of a cell phone ban was $700,000 per life-year saved. This compared unfavorably to the zero cost of front seat belt use or even the $24,000 cost of mandatory driver side air bags. The study did come under criticism, however, because it had been commissioned by AT&T Wireless. The impartiality of its findings was therefore called into question.

Subsequently, the Center conducted another study, self-funded this time, which was released last December. It took account of more up-to-date data on cell phone involvement in accidents and the expanding cell phone subscriber pool. It found that the value of a cell phone ban in terms of reduced accident rates would be around $43 billion per year. The cost of a ban in terms of the lost calls, however, would also amount to $43 billion annually.

So a ban on the use of cell phones while driving would save lives but cause great economic damage. There is an argument to be made that stating the argument in economic terms equates a large number of petty inconveniences with a much smaller number of actual deaths. This is true, but we do it all the time. We had fireplaces in our houses for many centuries for our convenience (there are other ways of keeping warm), despite the risk of burning down the house. Societies have always weighed risks and benefits, and have often sided on the side of the benefit, even if it meant that members of the society were bound to die as a result.

Such a trade-off can be seen in the results of the second study. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University released a study in January that looked at the characteristics of accidents caused by driver distraction within the state of Virginia. They found that cell phones were not a leading cause of distraction, causing only 4 percent of the accidents. The leading cause of distraction was actually "rubber-necking," looking at another accident, incident, or at another vehicle, which caused 13 percent of the accidents. Next came looking at scenery or landmarks, which caused 10 percent. The leading cause of distraction within a vehicle was other passengers or children, which caused 9 percent of the accidents. What is most interesting is that "adjusting or changing a radio, CD or tape" caused 6.5 percent of accidents, half as many again as cell phones.

There is no call to ban in-car entertainment systems like radios, CDs or tape players. They certainly provide benefits, but it is clear that they cause more accidents than cell phone use. In this case, society has taken a collective decision that the deaths caused by in-car entertainment systems are outweighed by the collective utility, or general happiness, the public derives from them. If there is no generally-accepted case for banning these entertainment systems, we need to ask ourselves why we are so keen to ban cell phone use while driving. Perhaps, as more and more people can afford cell phones, the call for such bans will diminish. In the meantime, the next time someone yells "Get off the phone and drive," they should also consider throwing away their in-car CD collection.

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