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Cell Phones Don't Kill People, Cars Kill People

08/19/2013 05:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

A powerful new documentary by Werner Herzog is making the rounds (presented by the phone companies), showing the consequences of accidents caused by phone-distracted driving. It got me to revisit my posts on mobile phones and traffic accidents and do some more speculating about this.

A new report from the federal government shows that, of 29,757 fatal crashes in 2011, 10 percent were reported to involve a distracted driver. Of those distracted-driver crashes, 12 percent involved a driver using a cell phone. Thus, the 350 fatal crashes in which a driver on a cell phone was reported to be involved account for 1.2 percent of all fatal crashes. (This is probably an undercount, as accidents can't be coded this way without witnesses or a driver confession.)

Meanwhile, from 1994 to 2011, mobile phone subscriptions increased more than 1,200 percent, from 24 million to 316 million. During that time, the number of traffic fatalities per mile driven has fallen 36 percent, and property-damage-only accidents per mile have fallen 31 percent. The improved safety of American roads is a big accomplishment. Here are the trends:

phonetraffictrendsSources: Accidents and deaths: this and earlier reports; Subscribers: this.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 5 percent of drivers are observed talking on handheld phones at any one time. Rates of distraction are presumably higher than this. There is an epidemic of distraction -- and there is voluminous evidence that such distraction is dangerous -- coinciding with large, continuous declines in traffic dangers.

How is this possible? Either (a) there is no connection between phones and accidents; (b) there is a positive causal connection, but it is swamped by whatever is making the roads safer; or, (c) cell phones are making the roads safer (say, by displacing other, more dangerous distractions, or by causing people to drive cautiously while they're doing something they know is dangerous). It's just a question. Anyway.

Cars kill people

The 1971 Keep America Beautiful Campaign featured this video: "People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It." It shows intense industrial pollution in the background as an American Indian paddles his canoe. Then:

Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. [Someone throws a bag of fast food waste out of a passing car, and it lands at the feet of the canoer, now standing on the shore.] And some people don't.

The "crying Indian" ad tried to hang the global pollution crisis on the personal malfeasance of individuals who litter (which is a real problem).

Is the anti-phone campaign trying to hang the problem of 30,000 road deaths per year in the U.S. on the reckless behavior of individuals who drive distracted? Distracted people causing carnage and destruction on the roads is terrible, of course. But a system of transportation that relies on people driving around in private cars is a much more fundamental problem.

I'm sure someone else has figured out how many lives are saved (presumably) from using public transportation versus private cars, but I didn't easily find it. In addition to the environmental health benefits, clearly countries where people get around in cars have a lot more road deaths:

car-rail-deaths

The number of rail deaths is very small: in these countries the car/rail death ratio averaged 36, almost three-times the car/rail mile ratio. (The U.S. is not on the chart because I didn't have rail miles traveled. But the U.S. road death rate of 10.4 per 100,000 would make us 4th in this group, behind only Greece, Poland, and Portugal.)

Let's put it this way: Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the safety of their fellow citizens. And some people don't. Public transportation saves lives.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.