Friday, September 10, 2010

Not a baby bird

Using a cell phone while driving is clearly risky. I've been put at risk repeatedly by commuters who can't seem to get out of their parking lots without holding a phone to their ears and tuning out every other driver, whom they then threaten to send off to the body shop - or the body farm.

Good, careful studies have shown that merely talking on a cell phone impairs a driver more than being drunk and subjects that driver to greater risk of accident. Talking on the phone is distracting, and distraction is a great enemy of careful driving.

And yet...

Thirty-four thousand people died on the roads last year. (Osama bin Laden, eat your heart out.) Drunk driving was implicated in a third of these deaths - more than 11,000. (h/t Atrios)

Yet, while cell phones have exploded in popularity and common use on the road, there has been no corresponding surge in traffic fatalities. If cell phone use is really as bad as drunk driving, NHTSA should be calling it out as a separate category of distraction, and I'd expect to find another 10,000 dead in the stats. But no.

Now the meta point...

Teabaggers and other wingnuts believe lots of things that the media feeds them. They also disbelieve lots of other things that the media feeds them.

I have no problem in general with skepticism of official sources, which frequently bullshit all of us. I'm not a baby bird, swallowing whatever mom and dad regurgitate into my avid little gullet. No one should be, not teabaggers, no one. I'd just like to separate truth from fiction rationally.

OK, so how to explain the difference between the studied and proven risks of drivers on the phone? Could the problem be a binning defect in our definition of drunk driving? Is it possible that we've reduced the legal standard of drunk driving (0.08% blood alcohol by volume in most states) well beyond the point at which diminishing returns have set in? I thought so until I did a few sample blood alcohol calculations (here). Using my own experiences and perceptions as a guide, there's no doubt that significant impairment begins below the legal standard. (I tested my perceptions, too. One drink per hour for four hours yields almost no blood alcohol at my weight, and that matches my self-assessment of impairment.)

Could there be a huge number of drunks on the road at all times? I don't think that explanation works. The visible rate of cell phone use is significantly higher than the percentage of the population who are problem drinkers. (Yes, both of those stats are proxies for what we'd really try to measure.)

Maybe the problem of alcohol is not the skill impairments at all but, instead, the impairment of judgement. Poor impulse control, found in cell users only at background levels, is rife in drinkers. Interestingly, stoners behind the wheel have impaired skills, too, but they don't pose increased risks because they're blessedly cautious.

Poor impulse control could push drunk drivers beyond the threshold of speed and recklessness that causes more fatal accidents, while cell phone users are so distracted they are at greater risk for non-fatal accidents.

Is this theory true? It's plausible, but I don't know that it's true. In the media, I'd settle for plausible, with the truth to be refined and worked out over time, as it always must be.

Yeah, I'm aware after five decades of life that that's too much to ask for - waaay too much.

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