Driven to Distraction

The following post may make me extremely unpopular, but someone has to say it:

Keep your laws off my cell phone.

Texting While Driving

Several states and municipalities have instituted their driving-and-cell-phone laws, and are smugly sure they have now made life safe for everyone. I have a philosophical objection to the idea that you can now ban behavior based on the standard of a “distraction,” because once the precedent is established, anything could be added to that law. For instance, it may one day be illegal to transport young children in a vehicle that lacks a sound-proof divider to keep the driver from being distracted by the children.

You think I am joking? Maybe you do, so let’s look at those hard statistics that show cell phone use is killing people.

Let’s go straight to the data, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

[gdocs st_id=0AqDO-LNMo_gHdFVjS1hpclp3WEhhQl90VjFkR283dEE wt_id=od6 type=’spreadsheet’]

(The Fatality-Rate is based on every 100-million vehicle miles traveled.)

You’ll note the data only goes up to 2008. It takes a while to compile all the records from 50 states, but we have a glimpse of 2009. Here’s the summary from the preliminary data for the first 9 months of the 2009 reporting period:

A statistical projection of traffic fatalities for the first three quarters of 2009 shows that an estimated 25,576 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes. This represents a decline of about 7.9 percent as compared to the 27,771 fatalities that occurred in the first three quarters of 2008.

Did you catch that? We’re on pace for another 8-percent drop in fatalities. If there are so many people texting-while-driving, and it is such the menace, why aren’t those numbers higher? After all, mobile phone penetration has gone way up in the last five years.

Prowl the NHTSA site, and search the FARS database for keywords related to that. They aren’t there.

The Torts and the Hair (Trigger)

Since NHTSA doesn’t have the data broken out, where can you find it?

Why, on attorney websites!

Edgar Snyder & Associates in Pennsylvania has done a wonderful job with search engine optimization, inviting people to link to them in a way that boosts their search results. “Copy this code” ensures their link will always show up with the same anchor text, bringing you to the page with the following statistics:

In 2008, at any given moment, over 800,000 Americans were texting, making calls, or using a handheld cell phone while driving during the daytime. With distracted driving killing nearly 6,000 Americans in the same year, it’s no mystery that cell phone use is risky for drivers.

Interesting quote. It almost makes you think that 6,000 Americans died because of cell phone use. But it was really “distracted driving,” which encompasses a number of other activities.

Talking on a cell phone causes nearly 25% of car accidents.

Unsubstantiated. There is no data there to support it.

4 out of every 5 accidents (80%) are attributed to distracted drivers. In contrast, drunk drivers account for roughly 1 out of 3 (33%) of all accidents nationally.

This is laughable. For this to be true, then there must be at least a 13% overlap between the two groups. Which means that 1 out of every 7 accidents happens with a drunk and distracted driver.

A study of dangerous driver behavior released in January 2007 by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. found that of 1,200 surveyed drivers, 73% talk on cell phones while driving. The same 2007 survey found that 19% of motorists say they text message while driving.

Then why is there a decline in fatalities?

Let’s look at one more here:

In 2002, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis calculated that 2,600 people die each year as a result of using cellphones while driving. They estimated that another 330,000 are injured.

Looking at 2002 in the table above, we see there were 43,000 fatalities in the United States. That number was a peak (only eclipsed by 2005,) yet the Fatality Rate for every 100-million-miles traveled was still going down. Harvard estimates that 2,600 of those 43,000 were blamed on cell phone use. That is six percent. Consider the explosion in wireless phone and data use since 2002, and ask yourself why the fatality rate is still going down at the same rate it has for the last 15 years.

And why am I the only one who is daring to question the math?


I do not think people should text while driving. I think it is a really stupid thing to do.

That does not equate to justification for poorly written laws, that open to door to many other restrictions.

We’re Gaga for Bad Math

Why are there so many “common sense” notions about this topic that are factually bare?

Let’s do a little thought experiment.

Let’s say that Lady Gaga goes from being popular to immensely popular. Such that, at any given moment you have 30-percent of the cars on the road blasting Poker Face from the stereo. Teens, in particular have been known to wave their arms rhythmically and play air drum to the song.

Lo and behold, we discover that 30-percent of traffic accidents involve people who listen to Lady Gaga. (Finally, a reason to ban her!) And when you look at the projections for just how much more popular she will be next year, it’s clear we need to ban Gaga from car stereos for the betterment of mankind!

Now, is there a causation here, or a correlation? Is there a rise in the number of wrecks where there was a cell phone in use because more people are using cell phones, or because more people using cell phones are getting into accidents?

Please tell me how these three facts mesh:

  1. Texting-while-driving causes more accidents.
  2. The number of people who text has exploded.
  3. Accident rates continue to go down.

Of course, one thing no one takes into consideration is that when you’re texting your friend behind the wheel, it’s awful hard to air drum. It’s also hard to put on makeup, or pick up an envelope that’s fallen between the seats, or change the station, or any number of things.

Texting while driving is stupid. (That’s just to remind you where I stand on this.)

There are dozens of other things that are stupid to do while driving. Banning one for being “distracting” does not guarantee there will be less “risky behavior,” but rather there will be different “risky behavior.”

Why Ike Is An Agent of Satan

My comment section will likely explode with people wanting to tell me how I am spreading dangerous lies, about how I will have blood on my hands, and about how someone they know died tragically in a cell-related car wreck and we have to do something about this scourge.

I get it. I really do.

But I want all of you to understand how we get to the point where emotional appeal turns into bad policy.

The News Media is Bad at Math

Innumeracy is rampant in newsrooms. I know, I used to work in them, and I was quite the anomaly. I actually took statistics in college, and understand concepts like standard deviations and selection bias. When issues like this popped up in the newsroom, producers did their darnedest to steer clear of me working on these stories, because I wouldn’t go by “the script.”

You find a victim. (And if there have been two very recently, no matter how statistically irrelevant that is, it’s A Trend and you get to make special graphics for them and do “team coverage.”)

Then you find an expert, someone who can take all of the statistics that exist and boil them down to something so simple (and useless) that a television producer can understand them.

Take the most salacious pieces, mix them into promotional hyperbole, and serve. But whatever you do, don’t question the numbers. And for God’s sake, don’t go to the source.

Follow the Money

Attorneys make great sources for reporters who need experts on a deadline. After all, they have a graduate degree, and access to all manner of statistics to bolster their case.

You do know there is a case, right?

Attorneys charge by the hour, and they don’t spend their hours researching things that are of no interest to their clients (or future clients.) Do you think Edgar Snyder & Associates is publishing those accident statistics out of the goodness of their hearts? That out of Christian charity, they are not only bearing the bandwidth costs of all those pages, but engaging in search-engine optimization to ensure people find their statistics?

I know many attorneys, and am proud to call several of them friends. But attorneys aren’t unbiased researchers, following facts wherever they lead. They have a sworn duty to advocate for their client. That means running with the statistics and phrasings that trace the outlines, so the juries can color the insides green.

Common Sense is not Infallible

Everybody knows that texting while driving is stupid. At the very least, it’s not a smart thing to do. And depending on the surveys you consider, anywhere from 30-80% of adults are doing just that.

Let’s go back to the Edgar Snyder site for a moment:

84% of cell phone users stated that they believe using a cell phone while driving increases the risk of being in an accident.

Yes, we agree that it increases the risk.

Of cell phone users that were surveyed, 85% said they use their phones occasionally when driving, 30% use their phones while driving on the highway, and 27% use them during half or more of the trips they take.

And yes, we agree that we are (almost) all doing it. So why are the numbers of accidents going down?

Clearly, our “common sense” about this is clouding our judgment.

We Don’t Ask Questions

Look at the following statements:

In 2008, about 6,000 American drivers died in car accidents that involved distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


In 2008, the NHTSA estimated that 5,870 people were killed and another half-million injured in cell phone related driving accidents.

They are citing the same number, but the second makes the mistake of conflating “distracted driving” to “cell phone use.” Little wonder, since the the first comes from, and the second was written for by a 2008 graduate of USC with no journalism training whatsoever. (Given the lack of math smarts in most newsrooms, it’s probably not that much of a drop off.)

How many people who have quoted those stats or linked to that site bothered to look up the background of the writer? How many questioned the unsourced stats? How many bothered to ask if the attorney had a vested interest in drumming up clientèle, with a slam-dunk factor in a civil suit, that we all know must be a factor because common sense tells us so?

Driven Crazy

Driving while texting is crazy. But then again, we do a lot of crazy things. Choosing to do a stupid or reckless thing is stupid, with little regard to the activity one has chosen.

Just be aware of all the other factors at play here. The attorneys who have something to gain, the journalists who need a sensational sounding lede and a desire to feel important again, do-gooders who want to pat themselves on the back for saving the world… what’s not to love?

A permanent scar on our freedoms.

Because these laws, as they are written with “distraction” as the justification, have opened mighty doors for the power of the state. With very little justification, we’ve handed local governments the precedent to ban all sorts of behavior, or require expensive equipment in the name of limiting “distraction.”

Even worse, we continue to pass through life without any degree of critical thinking. We give more power to the iron triangle of specialized interests, an ignorant and dwindling press, and a fickle zeitgeist that will give up everything to save virtually nothing.

We are driven to distraction from the truth; and the real winners are:

  • those who gain votes for humoring our pliant consent
  • those who earn commissions while trafficking in the pain of others
  • those who rent our eyeballs for a sensational piece of journalism-like substance.

If you have lost a loved one to a suspected case of texting while driving, I am very sorry for your loss. Texting while driving is really, really dumb. But let’s not rush into a half-baked solution that ends in political back-slapping and lack of accomplishment. If you want to encourage people to stop doing dumb things, then link to one of the many viral videos that shows the consequences. Make people a little squeamish. Just don’t give another weapon to the next generation of nannies and patrician elitists, who know oh so much better for us than we do.

(Can we start banning Lady Gaga now, before she causes a single needless death? It’s for the children.)

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  1. Ike, I’m totally with you regarding the reasons and consequences of bad legislation.Although I live in Europe, the trend (ahh, that wonderful word again) seems to be similar to what you describe: toward more governmental control over people’s lives. It seems a number of noble ideals, such as national security, public health or child protection, can override common sense and turn into regulation governing everybody’s life, even if they in reality are only loosely, or not at all, connected with a certain case.Legislation reflects people’s understanding of right and wrong. Given, though, that “the people” or “the nation” is a very mixed bag, there is always the danger of a certain lobby managing to force their idea of mandatory or forbidden behavior onto others.Legislators and legislating bodies should therefore make very sure they have efficient filters in place to ensure they are serving the common good, not that of a certain subgroup.

  2. I am solidly in your camp around the lack of critical thinking around these parts, the pandering of bad statistics, and the impact of knee-jerk legislation.

    However I’m not sure I’m with you on your premise of a lack of cause and effect.

    A couple years ago I implemented a program to increase the use of web conferencing at a major company. The project was a great success and we estimated that business travel had decreased in the company by 10% as a result. However travel costs company-wide went UP during the same period. How can you justify the two facts? Wouldn;t this mean that our program was a total failure … and perhaps INCREASED travel costs?

    Of course not. There were confounding factors, most notably a 30% increase in airline ticket prices due to surging fuel costs. So the fact was, without our program, costs would have risen even more.

    Likewise, i suspect there are confounding factors here and that if people were not text-messaging, the results would be even better.

    I am against undue regulation but if one of my children were killed by somebody texting, I would probably be on the steps of the Statehouse demanding legislation too.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Mark, I’m totally with you on that.

      I actually pored through the data on that point, and for the life of me I can’t see where the downward trend (which goes back all 15 years of the available NHTSA data) has been impacted, in either direction.

      Fewer people are dying, per mile traveled. And it’s still going down. When you contrast that with the Harvard study from 2002, it just doesn’t add up. The Harvard calculation about the number of “lives that could be saved,” when extrapolated to the explosion in the wireless market and the numbers of people self-reporting this dangerous behavior, would add up to more fatalities today than are currently attributed to “distracted driving.”

      But I dare say that you and I have spent more mental energy thinking about these statistics than the people who are reporting them.

      Thanks for weighing in.

  3. I’m definitely in the camp that this is bad legislation. Sadly, I think a number of people have taken to texting while driving instead of calling, as the latter is now illegal in many places and much more conspicuous. And I don’t think anyone would argue the point that texting while driving is far more dangerous than talking. Another classic example of unintended consequences.
    On the legislation itself, I find it a bad precedent. If you hit someone and do damage, you should be liable for what you’ve done. I’m not particularly concerned with why. Simply texting or talking on the phone harms no one by itself. And what if I am still a safer driver while talking or texting than some 90 year-olds are with no other distractions. Should they be allowed to be on the road?

  4. One way to get reelected is to convince people that they need you in office to protect them from a threat. The media play along with this, because they need to convince people that a threat exists in order to entice them to buy/watch/read their stories.
    It doesn’t occur to them that passing more legislation might not be the answer. For reasons I’ll keep to myself for now, they aren’t wired to think that way. And, as Mark pointed intimated, its’ natural to demand action if we, personally, are affected by such a tragedy.
    I agree that the media are bad at math (statistics in particular), but in the interest of charity to the bad statistics-citers, I’ll show you how easy it is to fall into this trap. You said:
    “Please tell me how these three facts mesh:

    Texting-while-driving causes more accidents.
    The number of people who text has exploded.
    Accident rates continue to go down.”

    However, the statistics you cited did not say that; they said that fatalities and fatality rates have gone down. That’s not the same thing. A number of factors could contribute to this, such as increased crash performance for newer vehicles. It isn’t necessarily attributable to fewer accidents. (It may be, but unless I just missed it, the statistics just don’t say).
    A classic book on the subject is “How to Lie with Statistics.” My statistics professor in college recommended it to me, and it quickly became one of my favorite books.
    A few other of his words of wisdom:

    “Statistics are always wrong.”
    “Reporters always misreport on statistics.”
    “The public would ever want to read an article by a statistician.”

    Overall, I agree with the thrust of your article. But politicians and journalists make a living on our propensity to overreact. And all the while we cede more and more control over our lives to the politicians to the sound of the journalists’ applause.

    • Thanks Cam, I agree with you.

      I mentioned that triumvirate of statements because if you polled the casual viewer/reader, they would tell you unequivocally that accidents and fatalities are both dramatically higher.

      With regards to fatalities, they are down, but looking at the last couple of years, the total miles driven has gone down as well (blame the economy.) That’s why I went with the statistic that tracks fatalities-per-100-million-miles driven. Yet even then, I see a downward trend that steadily falls at about the same rate for the last 15 years. If cars have gone from “safer-and-safer” each year to “super-duper-oh-my-God-safer” in the last couple of years, in a proportion that just happens to perfectly mask the increased carnage of distracted driving, then how would we know?

      You are correct that decoupling texting and distractions from this is nigh impossible — and that is my point. But we’re in total agreement that both politicians and journalists have a very heavy incentive to gloss right over those facts, and jump on the conclusion that we think we want to hear.

  5. I don’t text and drive. I worry about other people texting and driving. But based upon the law, you’d think it was a crisis of epidemic proportions. We have a new anti-texting law in Utah. But you see people with a bunch of kids in the car, or their dog on their lap hanging out the window, or smoking, or who knows what else. There are many things we could be doing while driving, even though we shouldn’t.
    I appreciate you shedding light on the statistics behind the problem that don’t clearly demonstrate that there is one.  Once again, it proves political agendas, “follow the money”, and sadly, journalistic shortfalls.

  6. A few things about the 2009 figures–remember, total miles driven were down: Fewer miles driven is of course going to equal fewer accidents.
    I’m in the camp that yes, we need laws to tell people not to do this. They should know better, but they continue to do so. I guess it has to do with your personal tolerance for distracted driving. Mine is really, really low. Why?
    First, my sister was rear-ended by a guy who readily admitted at the accident scene he was digging around, trying to locate his ringing cell phone.
    Second, my husband is a cyclist. There are way too many times where he’s come home after being run off the road by someone talking on the phone. Your peripheral vision is reduced when you talk on the phone and drive–sure, you’re paying attention to the road in front of you, but there are many things to the side of the road that you don’t see.
    And, finally, a few months ago I was almost hit head-on by a pickup truck that drifted over the center line. What was the driver doing? He had his phone at the top of the steering wheel, and he was either dialing or texting. I had enough room–and just enough time–to swerve onto the shoulder.
    I’m fully aware that anecdotes do not equal data. But I’ve just listed three incidents/reasons that I’ve personally experienced that all came damn close to serious injury. I didn’t even get into the number of times I’ve been on the back of my husband’s motorcycle and had someone drift into our lane. So I don’t need highway death statistics to tell me that this is necessary.
    If people are going to do stupid sh*t like texting while they are driving, then they should expect that eventually there will be legislation to stop it. Don’t want legislation? Stop doing it.
    Personally, I’d like to see every car and truck be manual transmission, it would cut down on some of this if people were actually forced to drive their vehicles.

    • Thanks Jen, and that speaks to one of the key points: anecdote and personal connection carry more weight in an argument than raw data ever will.

      I am aware that the number of miles driven has decreased — that’s why I included the ratio of fatalities per 100-million-miles driven. 2008 was way down in that regard.

      I have a low tolerance to distracted driving as well, but I also have a low tolerance for people who insist on riding the shoulder all the way up to the point of the lane closure, then force their way into the established line.

      Here’s a novel solution: if the cops see someone texting while driving, pull them over and give them a field sobriety test.

      “But officer, I haven’t been drinking.”

      “Just walk the straight line for me, sir. You were weaving.”

  7. Just goes to show how emotional this issue is for me…I realized about 20 minutes after posting that you’d made the differentiation between total miles driven and per 100, etc.
    Is there a reason you chose fatalities over just accidents? I’m curious, because I’d be surprised if the insurance industry isn’t part of this push. I don’t know the numbers, but I think it’s a valid question. Just because someone didn’t die, doesn’t mean there wasn’t considerable expense and possibly serious injury involved. Are the data different when looking at total incidents of distracted driving versus fatalities? I’d think yes. If cars are safer (as we are told they are) then the number of fatalities *should* go down. But if the data show that the number of accidents go *up*, even if cars are safer, that shows that distracted driving is a problem.
    I like your solution for getting pulled over…

  8. Ice cream sales and murders are also correlated, but nobody thinks the sale of ice cream causes people to murder.
    Maybe there exists some third variable that causes there to be less fatalities, even though there are more accidents. I would love to see how the accident rate has changed over time.
    Perhaps the third variable is vehicle construction. Cars are made safer and able to withstand accidents better. Airbags for all! More cell phone use, more distracted drivers, more accidents, less fatalities. It’s a possibility.


  1. Ike Pigott says:

    This post will make people hate me, but I don't care |

  2. Phillip says:

    RT @ikepigott This post will make people hate me, but I don't care | <= send to everyone you know, esp. state lawmakers!

  3. Ike Pigott says:

    Texting, driving, and statistics |

  4. Ballinger says:

    Your problem is thinking. Most people only emote. RT @ikepigott This post will make people hate me, but I don't care |

  5. This post will make people hate me, but I don't care | (via @ikepigott) Who doesn't love data? Maybe @Oprah?

  6. Ballinger says:

    True, and NOT what you think. RT @ikepigott Texting, driving, and statistics

  7. Needs to be said (and read) RT @ikepigott: Texting, driving, and statistics |

  8. RT @swoodruff: Needs to be said (and read) RT @ikepigott: Texting, driving, and statistics (gone awry) | #vt

  9. RT @ikepigott: Evidence that texting while driving has no impact on fatalities?

  10. Ike Pigott says:

    @infodude – I don't care. I still want legislation banning @ladygaga |

  11. Bill Starr says:

    If cell phone use while driving is so dangerous, why are the numbers of accidents going down? via @ikepigott (1/2)

  12. Bill Starr says:

    If cell phone use while driving is so dangerous, why are the numbers of accidents going down? via @ikepigott (1/2)

  13. Bill Starr says:

    With little justification, we’ve handed govts precedent to ban all sorts of behavior in name of limiting “distraction.”

  14. mstory123 says:

    As usual @ikepigott reminds me of how freaking smart he is. Must read: "Driven to Distraction"

  15. mattyb says:

    On emotionalism and gullibility, Put these 2 articles together: and

  16. Peter Stamps says:

    RT @ikepigott: Texting, driving, and statistics |

  17. Alan Stein says:

    RT @mjayliebs: RT @swoodruff: Needs 2 B said (and read) RT @ikepigott: Texting, driving, & statistics (gone awry) | #vt

  18. Eric Hilton says:

    Great article – knee jerk reactions are never best RT @alanmstein… Texting, driving, & statistics (gone awry) |

  19. Ike Pigott says:

    The stats are as clear as mud. |

  20. Great post! RT @ikepigott: The stats are as clear as mud. |

  21. Interesting opinion about why texting while driving is not the end of the earth:

  22. Ike Pigott says:

    This is the sort of thing that gets a guy unfollowed, when read in the wrong context:

  23. Ike is one smart dude. RT @ikepigott This is the sort of thing that gets a guy unfollowed, when read in wrong context:

  24. Ben Kearney says:

    Agree RT @ikepigott This is the sort of thing that gets a guy unfollowed, when read in wrong context: (via @kmatthews)

  25. Jason Sweat says:

    RT @markwschaefer: RT @ikepigott: Evidence that texting while driving has no impact on fatalities?

  26. Keith Smith says:

    Dead on, my friend! RT @ikepigott: This is the sort of thing that gets a guy unfollowed, when read in the wrong context:

  27. Aaron McCall says:

    Interesting take on the 'OMG, texting while driving is killing thousands!' issue: /by @ikepigott /via @sweatje

  28. Michelle says:

    Thought provoking info on txting while driving.

  29. Ike Pigott says:

    Thanks to all who put up with my rant, and retweeted it.

  30. Ballinger says:

    Worth sending again! RT @ikepigott Thanks to all who put up with my rant, and retweeted it.

  31. CB says:

    Worth sending again! RT @ikepigott Thanks to all who put up with my rant, and retweeted it.

  32. Whoa! A major league rant served up with side of smarts RT @ikepigott: Thanks to all who put up with my rant.

  33. Jeff Turner says:

    Really interesting reading… RT @kdrewien: Driven to Distraction

  34. @respres Ike's post does a great job of showing critical thinking has left the building. Thanks for the RT

  35. Ike Pigott says:

    Texting, Driving, and Liberty – Thanks to everyone who weighed in on my post |

  36. Ike Pigott says:

    Birmingham issues texting-while-driving ban: (It's a popular bandwagon, but will it matter much? )

  37. RT @ikepigott: Birmingham issues texting-while-driving ban: (It's a popular bandwagon, but will it matter much? )

  38. tmycann says:

    Making my libertarian friends happy by agreeing w/this blog: Like Heinlein said "unenforceable laws weaken democracy" :/