How dare they tell us the truth?

COLBY COSH: Comparing cell-phone-using drivers to drunken ones doesn’t make for a solid argument

Maybe it’s true: you can put a Republican in a Democratic cabinet, but you can’t stop him from trashing science. On Friday the Highway Loss Data Institute issued a paper complaining that their insurance-claims information offered no significant indication that cellular bans in California, New York, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia had done a lick of good. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took to the web in a state of high dudgeon, complaining that the study “irresponsibly suggests that laws banning cell phone use while driving have zero effect on the number of crashes on our nation’s roadways.”

Leaving aside whether it can be “irresponsible” for a study to report disappointing or unexpected data—although, why, yes, now that you mention it, that’s something the definition of scientific responsibility positively requires!—LaHood isn’t even speaking accurately about what the HLDI found. According to the Institute’s interpretation of the trendlines, New York and Connecticut experienced statistically significant increases in claims relative to other states when cell-phone bans were introduced. The effect of the ban wasn’t zero: it was worse than zero.

The HLDI doesn’t really believe that cell-phone bans make the roads more dangerous, and you probably shouldn’t either. The charts in the study offer a nice check on the credibility of the findings, and the one from New York actually appears to provide decent prima facie evidence that the cell-phone ban did work there:

New York state collision claims vs. those of neighbouring statesThe reason the statistical model used in the paper reported a negative effect in NY (and CT) is that those states were already enjoying long-term trends of increasing relative safety before the ban—trends which slowed, but, as you can see for yourself, did not stop. Interpretively, this seems like pretty sharp dealing. On the other hand, the unimpressive early results for California, the most populous state, have to be pretty disappointing for advocates of a cell-phone ban.

One way or another, there can be no excuse for LaHood to resort to the argument from anecdote in an attack on the world’s most important highway-safety authority.

Not explaining likely reasons for the surprising data encourages people to wrongly conclude that talking on cell phones while driving is not dangerous! Nothing could be further from the truth. Just ask Jennifer Smith and the founding board members of FocusDriven, who all lost loved ones in crashes caused by cell phone drivers. Ask Shelli Ralls, who lost her son Chance Wayne Wilcox on March 22, 2008. Ask any one of the hundreds of people who have poured out their stories of loss on Oprah, on websites, in blogs and newspapers around the country.

You heard right: go ask Oprah, says the man 13th in the line of succession to the nuclear football. I for one would be more comfortable right now if that number were a little higher.

I thought another part of LaHood’s horrified screed was particularly amusing:

Look, a University of Utah study shows that using a cell phone while driving can be just as dangerous and deadly as driving drunk.

The part he left out, in describing that 2006 study, is that motorists were put in a driving simulator and tested four times: once while sober and undistracted, once while using a handheld cell, once while using a hands-free set, and once while at a blood-alcohol level of exactly 0.08%—the legal limit in many North American jurisdictions. What the researchers actually found is that driving “drunk” by this definition isn’t all that dangerous!

“Neither accident rates, nor reaction times to vehicles braking in front of the participant, nor recovery of lost speed following braking differed significantly” from undistracted drivers, the researchers write. …Drews says the lack of accidents among the study’s drunken drivers was surprising. He and Strayer speculate that because simulated drives were conducted during mornings, participants who got drunk were well-rested and in the “up” phase of intoxication.

Whoa, there’s an “up” phase!?

Look, we all know it’s better to drive without distractions and without a bellyful of Wild Turkey. But learning to take drunk driving seriously has been an important achievement of Western civilization in recent times, and that achievement is undermined when politicians make gibbering, hysterical comparisons of cell-phone-using drivers to drunken ones. The case for cell-phone bans has to stand on its own two feet. And, ideally, on a solid empirical foundation of the sort that has not yet been supplied.