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Phone ban will have little impact on accident rate

Cell phone ban will have little impact on accident rates.

Jim Peron - executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values

Transport Minister Peter Hodgson, in the nanny tone that is typical of this government, recently said that the government is going to regulate cell phone use while driving. 'That action is coming' he promised.

The idea behind the ban is a simple one. Drivers with cell phones may get distracted. They may have an accident.

True enough. Mothers driving with small children may get distracted. They too may have accidents. No one has yet come up with the idea of banning children.

Driver distractions can cause accidents. No one questions that. But road policy ought not be based on the premise of a zero accident rate.

If you limit driving to 5 kilometres an hour and require drivers to be outfitted like stuntmen you may actually get close to an absolute safety rate. But no one would stand still for it.

Most of us recognise that life is a system of trade offs. We tolerate elevated levels of risk to avoid driving at 5 kph. We measure risks and do our best to draw a rational conclusion.

Most car accidents are not caused by driver distractions. And those that are have many causes.

Consider all the possible distractions that a driver can have. These can include animals running in front of the car, changing radio stations, lighting a cigarette, quieting the children, changing a tape or CD, or arguing with one¹s spouse. The possibilities are almost endless. Surely we aren¹t going to attempt to ban them all.

So where do cell phones fall on the scale of distractions?

The Highway Safety Research Centre at the University of North Carolina studied 32,000 traffic accidents caused by driver distractions. The number one distraction was outside objects, persons or events. They were responsible for 29.4% of the accidents.

The driver has no control over such things. It would be a bit unfair to compare cell phone usage‹which they do control‹to these events.

On the other hand drivers do control the radio or CD player and tinkering with them are were responsible for 11.4% of ³distraction² accidents.

The government likes to encourage people to car pool to work. But being distracted by another passenger was responsible for 10.9% of the accidents.

Now and then drivers try to move objects within the car from one spot to another. That action was responsible for 4.3% of the accidents.

Adjusting the temperature by using heating or air conditioning was responsible for 2.8% of the accidents and eating or drinking while driving was responsible for 1.7% of the accidents.

Every one these activities caused more accidents than using a cell phone in the car. The Minister could reduce the accident much more by merely banning radios, CD players, or passengers.

More accidents are caused by eating and drinking while driving yet we actually have drive through restaurants and the Minister is doing nothing to save us from this vile danger!

If the percentages from this study even come close to what is happening in New Zealand think what it means. Only a minority of accidents are caused by driver distractions. Of those less than 2% are caused by cell phone usage. That¹s not a very significant number.

According to the Land Transport Safety Authority cell phone usage caused 45 accidents in 2002, the last year for which statistics are available.

By checking the Annual Statistic for 2002 I see that there were 9,798 accidents that year. Even if the LTSA is correct we¹d have to conclude that cell phone use was responsible for less than half of one percent of all accidents.

It may sound frivolous but cutting our links with the monarchy is likely to reduce accidents more than banning cell phone use.

The Queen¹s Birthday is a holiday and just having a holiday escalates accident rates. We average around 26 accidents per day in New Zealand. Yet on the Queen¹s Birthday that rate triples or quadruples. But all holidays have that effect.

Just going on vacation increases your chances of having an accident. Witness the unfortunate, recent death of historian Michael King while was returning home from a holiday. Yet Labour is actually increasing holiday times for New Zealand workers.

Just four holidays per year are responsible for around 550 accidents. That¹s 12 time the number of accidents attributed to cell phones for the entire year! But what Minister wants to be the Grinch that banned Christmas regardless of how many lives it might save?

I don¹t want to trivialise the fact that accidents happen and people get hurt. In some cases they get killed. But it seems to me that banning cell phone use while driving will have almost no impact on lowering those rates.

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