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John B. Townsend II

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The Lake Wobegon Effect and the Cell Phone Ban

Posted: 12/28/11 11:01 AM ET

It is that place in the theater of the mind, in the ether, and on the airwaves where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." That's the status quo in the little town of Lake Wobegon and Garrison Keillor escorts us there each week on the popular radio series, A Prairie Home Companion.

When it comes to using a cell phone while driving, most American drivers are often delusionally overconfident about their ability to do it safely. They -- make that we -- suffer from "The Lake Wobegon Effect." By definition, this is the inherent and inbred tendency to overestimate our abilities and achievements, and to underestimate our foibles, frailties, and faults -- particularly in comparison with others.

People suffering from the Lake Wobegon Effect are hypocritical and hypercritical. Here's a telltale sign: they are fond of saying "do as I say, not as I do." Highway safety experts say that attitude, formerly known as "cognitive dissonance," is one of the greatest obstacles preventing us from improving safety on our roads. That is especially the case when it comes to distracted driving, which is one of the biggest safety hazards on the highways today. We have reached the point when there are more wireless subscriber connections than there are people in the United States, boasts the powerhouse wireless telecommunications industry. The number of connections soared to 322.9 million and the wireless penetration rate reached 102.4 percent ( this represents the percentage of active units divided by the U.S. and territorial population), recent figures from CTIA-The Wireless Association show.

Far from the misty and mythic shores of Lake Wobegon, more than 3,000 persons in the real world lost their lives in distracted driving related crashes last year, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In 2009, 448,000 persons were injured in motor vehicle crashes reportedly involving distracted driving.

Now, for the first-time ever, the NTSB is calling for a nationwide ban on the use of wireless devices (both handheld and hands-free) while operating a motor vehicle. Such a controversial ban has not been enacted in a single state, and tate lawmakers in the 50 state capitals across this country don't appear to be in a hurry to introduce ban legislation, political pulse takers say.

A number of libertarians, and some cell phone users are apoplectic, raving, "Oh, yeah, that will happen when hell freezes over." Even if it occurs at a glacial pace, supporters of such a ban, who the critics say aren't so keen on the politics, believe they have the facts and the science on their side, and that "at the length truth will out," in the words of Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and that reality will eventually carry the day.

For that to occur, drivers will have to see the light like Paul (ne' Saul) on the Damascus Road. But that's hard to do when they are blinded by that ancient psychological reflex -- "The Lake Wobegon Effect." Cell phone use while driving has become widespread and given the number of people who do so behind the wheel, more dangerous. Most drivers recognize that. In fact, they loathe the behavior in others, but believe they are the exception to the rule.

For example, we have zero tolerance for other drivers who chitchat on a cell phone while driving. Deep down inside we think the rules apply to everyone else, not us. In fact, 88 percent of drivers said they consider talking on a cell phone while driving a serious threat to their personal safety. What is more, 71 percent of drivers said they consider it unacceptable to chatter on a hand‐held cell phone while driving, and 40 percent consider it unacceptable to use a hands‐free device. Those astonishing findings were revealed in the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's fourth annual Traffic Safety Culture Index.

But they are talking about other drivers, not themselves. You see, when it comes to a self-appraisal of our ability to drive safely, no matter the circumstance or the device, we think we are above average drivers, especially in comparison with other drivers on the road. That's why it is called "the above average effect." Here's proof: 67 percent of drivers also admitted that they had talked on a cell phone while driving in the past month. It's also called "illusory superiority." That's seen in the fact that 31 percent of drivers confessed to talking on a cell phone while driving fairly often or regularly, reports the AAA Foundation.

Confession is good for the soul, but it's that conversation behind the wheel, no matter the electronic device, that can claim your life and the lives of others. This common mistake in reasoning is our national hang-up. Although attitudes are changing, when it comes to an outright ban on cell phone use while driving, most Americans aren't quite there yet. Still, "there is moderate social disapproval toward using a hand-held cell phone while driving," the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found.

Yet "a two-thirds majority of Americans support restricting the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, but more people oppose (50%) than support (46%) an outright ban on using any type of cell phone (including hands-free) while driving," the AAA Foundation found last year.

You don't have to be delusional, or live in Lake Wobegon for that matter, to know being distracted behind the wheel for even just a few seconds greatly increases your chances of being in a crash. Using a cell phone while driving quadruples your risk of crashing. Tragically, most drivers don't think it will ever happen to them. Blame it on having a "cognitive bias" about our own ability to safely talk on the cell phone while driving. But we are no different than anyone else.

Now the NTSB has already gained a powerful ally and possibly the coign of vantage (an advantageous position) against the wireless industry. It's the insurance industry, which equates distracted driving to driving under the influence of alcohol. "Distracted driving... and specifically texting while driving, has become a major epidemic in our country," declares the American Insurance Association (AIA). Representing approximately 300 insurers that write more than $100 billion in premiums each year, the AIA supports the NTSB's call for a nationwide ban. That could prove to the game-changer.

For this reason, sooner or later, the ban will come to all 50 states, and even to places like Lake Wobegon, where all the drivers think they are above average. Until then, hang up the phone and drive.