Thursday, June 26, 2003

Driven to distraction

'Missing a call won't kill you; an accident quite possibly could.' So said UK transport minister David Jamieson, announcing legislation to ban the use of mobile phones while driving. 'Our decision to introduce this new offence will make the roads safer for us all', he said. According to research conducted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), driving while using a mobile can increase the risk of an accident four-fold. Nineteen road deaths reported in the press in the period 1988 to 2001 were due to mobile phone use.

The truth is that nobody knows how many accidents are caused by drivers using mobile phones. It is worth differentiating relative risk from absolute risk. Road accidents, even quite minor ones, happen quite rarely for most drivers. In 2001, there was one fatal or serious accident for every 10million miles travelled. If drivers are four times more likely to have an accident when using a phone, that is still a small risk.

Another study conducted in the USA, and quoted by RoSPA, looks at the small number of crashes - eight percent - that are caused by driver distraction. An object or person outside the car is blamed for about 29 percent of such accidents; fiddling with the car stereo accounts for about 11 percent; and being distracted by other passengers for 10 percent. Mobile phones account for 1.5 percent of these accidents, which means that even if this research could be extrapolated to all drivers in the UK, mobile phones would cause just 0.12 percent of the total number of accidents. On this basis, if the government was really keen to reduce accidents, it would ban car stereos, which apparently cause eight times as many accidents as mobile phones do.

Such a law isn't even necessary. If someone causes an accident while distracted by a phone call, they can be charged with careless driving. This is not about actually reducing accidents but responding to the minor irritations of life with the sledgehammer of law. If we start banning every form of stupid behaviour, we'll end up getting nowhere at all.

Road-safety groups welcome ban on hand-held mobile phone use in car, Scotsman, 25 June 2003
The risk of using a mobile phone while driving, RoSPA [pdf, 255KB]
Fatal and serious road accident rates, Office of National Statistics [Excel format]

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