The Science is Settled.

The science is settled.

Everyone knows it’s true.

You’ve read about it in the papers. You’ve heard it talked about on TV. Skeptics are hard to find, and they’re wrong. Obviously. You know it yourself.

Only now, the wheels are coming off the bus a little. Recent studies haven’t showed what was expected. And a few folks are starting to ask why.

Sound familiar? It’s not, exactly. I’m actually writing about cell phones.

It seems that a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study failed to show any reduction in traffic accidents after enactment of laws banning various kinds of cell phone activities behind the wheel. The laws worked, clearly enough, to reduce the actions being targeted. The problem is that there was no reduction in traffic accidents. All the traffic enforcement, the advertising, the public service messages, and the money spent on headsets appears to have had no effect on the thing it was supposed to help.

Why? The IIHS is scratching its head. “We’re currently gathering data to figure out this mismatch” is the mantra.

The reason is obvious, and it serves as a great object lesson for those who bang the “Climate Change” drum, or a thousand other well-meaning interventions based on really bad science.

If you, in your heart of hearts, believe that cell phone users are death on the roads, please work with me for a moment. Suspend your disbelief – you can have it back if you need it – and let me make a contentious point or two.

Cell phones don’t cause traffic accidents. They can’t possibly have the kind of effect that’s been quoted. I’ve read that the risk of having an accident while you’re on the phone is the same as if you were drunk. In which case, we could trade the cell phone that’s active in the majority of cars on the road today for four stiff shots of vodka, and the results would be the same. It’s a silly analogy.

Nobody will say that talking on the phone makes you a better driver. But driving, as it turns out, is a very safe activity with an enormously high margin for error, stupidity, distraction, and lousy training. Back in the early ’90’s, there were essentially no telephones in cars. Through the 1990’s and the oughts, cell phone use increased to the point that most drivers have one, and nearly everyone has talked on them while driving. And yet, through that same period, the accident rate per passenger mile and the fatality rate per passenger mile decreased at a nearly constant rate. If cell phone use were a significant driver for accidents, we’d have seen it in the numbers. It never showed up.

Geek time. If you hypothesize, as many people including the IIHS have done, that cell phones are a major driver for accidents, and you want to reconcile this with the absolute lack of any visible effect on the incidence of accidents during the largest natural experiment possible, then you have to either reject your hypothesis outright, or you have to postulate an equal, opposite, and completely simultaneous factor that counteracted the influence of your primary driver. You have to assume that every time someone picked up their cell phone, something else intervened – divine Providence, perhaps – to prevent that driver from killing everyone. Anyone see anything on the horizon that looks like this? Except maybe that people are in general careful enough about when and how they call that they avoid accidents most of the time? Which, if true, is just a way of invalidating the hypothesis in the first place.

Okay, enough geek time. Back to basics.

Other than the fact that “everyone knows it”, and “I’ve seen it too many times”, and “I saw it on TV”, how do you know that cell phones cause accidents? Discounting the times you’ve heard about it on TV, read about it in an entertainment medium like the papers, or had someone tell you about it second-hand, how do you know it?

I’ve actually read the science. There isn’t any. The “four fold” number that refers to actual incidents tracks back to the dumbest paper I’ve ever read (and as a scientist and a physician I’ve read a bunch of them). I’ll spare you most of the details, but let’s just say that the paper, published in a prestigious medical journal and peer-reviewed, asked and answered one of the strangest questions I’ve ever seen. They proved, using a review of phone and accident records in a single major metropolitan area, that being in a non-fatal injury accident was linked with a four-fold increase in the likelihood that you would have made a call at around the time of the accident, compared to the same phone a day earlier. That’s it. No causality, no details about the accidents, nothing else. And from that, we get the Known Fact that you’re four times more likely to be in a crash.

There have been other studies. Some have been “how distracted are you by your phone” kinds of studies, where the Known Fact is bolstered by testing of subjects in artificial environments to prove that you can’t react as fast with a phone in your hand as you can with your hands empty. Which is true, but is apparently irrelevant to the question of whether you can mostly avoid getting in car wrecks. Various law enforcement agencies are also gathering information on whether a driver was calling at the time of the accident and whether that contributed, but other than pointing out that there are a lot of cell phones out there, the studies are uncontrolled and essentially useless to answer any meaningful question.

Okay, so now the skeptics can climb back off the bus – I’m done offending your opinions. Now I want to talk public policy.

So we have science that contradicts apparent reality driving public policy that caters to the opinions of the scientists, producing laws that don’t seem to have any effect but do cost plenty of money. Ring any bells for anyone?

Scientists make terrible legislators. Legislators make terrible social engineers. Combining the two to enact laws which protect us from things we want to do and that don’t seem to hurt anyone (like mowing the lawn with a gas mower, for example) is never a good idea. Remember that, the next time someone wants you to go along with banning cell phones, or small engines, or non-organic foods, or movie popcorn.

It’s no accident (pun intended maliciously) that most of the experiments that the IIHS is quoting – the laws that are failing – are in places that have ceded some or all of their traditions of liberty to the paternalistic protection of the state. California, New York, and recently Oregon and Washington come rapidly to mind. For the rest of the nation, it turns out that you were right. There are better things to do with our time, and better uses to which our money might be put.

And to the IIHS, I would simply say that a lot of the money that you’re wasting “gathering data to figure out this mismatch” might be profitably spent improving driver training, reducing recidivist drunk driving, improving signs and roads and cars, and all the other things that you and others have been doing that has produced the steady safety trend of the past 50 years. You’re wrong on cell phones, but I salute your efforts overall.

P.S. – For those of you who still think that cell phones cause carnage and have personal anecdotes to prove it, and who haven’t read about Confirmation Bias and that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, I have a true story. A friend of mine, long ago, had a used car that was about to turn 100,000 miles, in a time when a lot of cars didn’t get that far. The day arrived and, as he drove down the highway, he watched as the numbers flipped over. And as he did, he missed a curve, rolled the car (he walked away, fortunately), and totalled his ride with exactly 100,000 miles on the odometer. So did the odometer cause the accident, and should we ban them? Or is it possible that staring at something too long without paying attention to the road is a bad idea, and that we should teach people not to do that, but recognize that we can’t possibly ban everything that might interfere with a laser-like focus on the road? Just asking…