Grandstanding about mobiles won’t reduce the road toll

It’s an old principle of policing – if you can’t enforce the laws on the books, demand more laws.

More than 55,000 people in Victoria were booked for using their mobile phones while driving last year. That’s around 150 people a day.

So on Monday, the front page of the Herald Sun reported that Victoria’s chief highway patrol cop wanted the government to force drivers to switch their phone off in cars.
Never mind that a ban on phones in cars would be completely unenforceable.

Victorian road rules are clear. The Road Safety Act bans mobile phone use while a car is running. The only exception is receiving calls or using navigation functions with a commercially fitted holder. Even then, the driver cannot touch the phone at any time. The fine is $300 and three demerit points. New South Wales enacted similar laws last week.

Yet one survey suggests around 60 per cent of Victorians still use their phone while driving. That 55,000 people booked isn’t a lot, considering more than two million of the state’s 3.7 million licensed drivers are breaking the rules.

The Herald Sun article said “thousands of rogue motorists flout the law”. No – millions do.

First things first: it is incredibly stupid to use a mobile phone while travelling at speed. Driving is a complex task. Sending a text message on a phone increases the risk of accident up to 23 times. That much is easy to demonstrate in simulations and in-car experiments.

But things get less certain from there.

The “while driving” data is a bit misleading. They include a lot of circumstances we wouldn’t usually call driving – like checking your phone while stopped at a traffic light. But if the engine is running, it counts.

The NSW government commissioned a study into the extent of the problem earlier this year as part of a parliamentary inquiry. The results were striking and counterintuitive.

Seven per cent of accidents in NSW in the last decade involved driver distraction. And within that 7 per cent, only 1 per cent involved a handheld phone.

Don’t get too hung up on the specific numbers. There are many complicated definitional issues. There’s a large body of academic research on driver distraction but it’s not all comparable. And, obviously, the ideal number of accidents is zero, whether related to phones or anything else.

Yet it still remains that mobile phones are extremely small proportion of the causes of distracted driving involved in accidents. The majority of distractions come from outside the car. Then there are those within the car – like fellow passengers, grooming, or eating and drinking.

There are even three times as many accidents involving police pursuit as mobile phones.

The overwhelming majority of accidents involve exactly what you’d expect: speed, fatigue, and drink. Mobile phones hardly rate.

But you wouldn’t know that from the press. Phones dominate the popular discussion of car accidents. Using a phone while driving seems to be the ultimate in recklessness. It is terrifying to imagine there are people speeding down the freeway while tapping out text messages.

Smart phones are a novelty, and novelty makes news. Stories about how mobile phones cause accidents has all the characteristics of a moral panic – a disproportionate reaction to a small problem. Drivers face worse distractions. There are more disconcerting risks on the road.

For instance, one 2005 study found in-car entertainment systems are a far bigger real-world distraction than phones. You have to take your eyes off the road to change a CD or radio station. Handheld phones are problematic not because they impair drivers physically, but because talking while driving takes extra mental effort. It’s the conversation which is dangerous, not the phone. (This explains why some studies have found hands-free phone systems are no safer than hand-held ones.)

These are uncomfortable findings. No politician wants to challenge the right of drivers to chat with passengers or listen to the radio. Anyway, that’s why we have careless driving laws, and take recklessness and negligence into account in criminal accident proceedings.

Nevertheless, there has been a remarkable decline in car fatalities over the past few decades. The Commonwealth government has been tracking road deaths since 1925. Deaths have reduced from 30 per 100,000 population in 1970, to seven in 2008. If anything, that understates the decline: we’re driving twice as much as we did 40 years ago. And the death toll is still going down, even as more people buy more complicated phones.

A society should try not to have too many unenforceable laws. They breed contempt for the law as an institution. If people get used to disobeying one law, they may become comfortable with disobeying others.

As the American writer Radley Balko has argued, calls to increase restrictions on mobile phones in cars aren’t about safety; they’re about symbolism.

It’s already illegal to use phones in the car. Lots of people do it anyway. But political grandstanding about mobiles is not the same as reducing the road toll.