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Brandon Sun - ONLINE EDITION

Police are wrong about cell phone risks

I admit it -- I howled when anti-cell phone laws came into effect and I had to put my phone down while I was driving.

Of course, I follow the law (mostly), but I still think it was a stupidly big hammer being used on too small a nail.

(Hint: If "distracted driving" is the problem, then ticket "distracted driving." Cell phones aren't always distracting -- it may be illegal, but it is absolutely not dangerous for me to quickly check a text message after I pull up to a light that's just turned red.)

Anyway, this week and next, Brandon police (as well as Winnipeg police and the Mounties) will be targeting distracted drivers in something they are calling Operation "No Phone Zone."

I don't take particular issue with any of that. Their job is to enforce the law, and I support them. But in the press release they sent out to advertise the event, the Brandon police repeated an urban legend about cell phone use that drivers who text on cell phones are 23 times more likely to get into a collision.

Here's the paragraph:

Studies have shown that 80% of all crashes are related to driver inattention and the number one source of that inattention is drivers talking or texting on cell phones. Drivers who talk on cell phones are 4 times more likely to get into a collision and drivers who text, are 23 times more likely. Using a cell phone reduces a driver’s attention by 37%.

Much of that is flat-out wrong. And, sorry, but I would prefer if the information I got from the police was, you know, accurate.

The statistics do come from somewhere, of course, but something has been dramatically lost in the translation.

I tracked down some of those numbers in this 2009 study by Virginia Tech.

The study is actually quite interesting. They filmed drivers in their own vehicles, and then watched where their eyes were looking.

But the results aren't what the police say they are. Here is what Virginia Tech says about its own study:

Given recent catastrophic crash events and disturbing trends, there is an alarming amount of misinformation and confusion regarding cell phone and texting use while behind the wheel of a vehicle. Our research findings can help begin to clear up these misconceptions as it is based on real-world driving data.

And here is some of that data:

A snapshot of risk estimates from these studies includes the following:

For light vehicles or cars

  • Dialing a cell phone made the risk of crash or near-crash event 2.8 times as high as non-distracted driving;
  • Talking or listening to a cell phone made the risk of crash or near-crash event 1.3 times as high as non-distracted driving; and
  • Reaching for an object such as an electronic device made the risk of crash or near-crash event 1.4 times as high as non-distracted driving.

For heavy vehicles or trucks

  • Dialing a cell phone made the risk of crash or near-crash event 5.9 times as high as non-distracted driving;
  • Talking or listening to a cell phone made the risk of crash or near-crash event 1.0 times as high as non-distracted driving;
  • Use of, or reach for, an electronic device made the risk of crash or near-crash event 6.7 times as high as non-distracted driving; and
  • Text messaging made the risk of crash or near-crash event 23.2 times as high as non-distracted driving.

A-ha! I hear you say. Look! 23.2 times more likely! The police were right!

But I say, look closer.

That specific stat is for drivers of semi trucks. And you'll note that it is for the risk of crash or near-crash event. I can't find any information of how many crashes there were in the study versus non-crashes -- in which the driver may have been distracted, but still managed to avoid a crash.

So right off the bat, a driver is not "23 times more likely" to get into a collision, as the Brandon police press release asserts -- because some number of those are "near-crash events" that weren't actually, you know, crashes.

And, although I can't find a break-out specific for the drivers of light cars compared to semi trucks, you'll note that, in almost all of the other categories, cell phone use by a truck driver is riskier than cell phone use by the driver of a car.

In fact, dialling a cell phone is about twice as risky for a semi driver as it is for the driver of a car.

And, despite the police claim that "Drivers who talk on cell phones are 4 times more likely to get into a collision," the study doesn't show that at all. In fact, truckers appear to be able to talk on a cell phone while driving without increasing their crash risk at all. And car drivers only increase their risk by about 30 per cent. And remember, this is crashes and near-crashes -- so the actual risk is even lower.

Of course, people seem to know this intuitively. I know plenty of people who continue to talk on their cell phones — especially on the highway — and the law makes allowances for hands-free headsets, as if the act of holding your hand to your ear is somehow dangerous.

You know what is dangerous? Driving itself. A recent Wired magazine article on self-driving cars said that "Traffic is the most dangerous thing that most of us ever encounter."

I support efforts to make that safer -- including sane laws on distracted driving. But I can't support scaremongering.

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I walked directly up to three BCP officers at Tim Horton's one afternoon and I asked them why I have repeatedly seen them on their cell phones and if this new bylaw doesn't apply to them as well and they told me that they are ALLOWED to be on their cell phones.

They told me that there is a special provision and/or that they are exempt from this bylaw themselves because of the nature of their job.

I don't think it's "scaremongering" to be concerned about distracted driving, be it cell phones, in-dash DVD players (I mean, REALLY?? You watch movies while you DRIVE??), GPS devices etc. But I'd feel a bit more comfortable with law enforcement cracking the whip if I hadn't frequently seen them tooling along, nattering away into their own cell phones. And please, officers, do not dream of denying it.

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