By David Strayer
Several years ago, I served on a task force charged with addressing driver distraction caused by cell phones. At one meeting, a representative from the cell phone industry suggested that we add driving with a tuna casserole to the list of distractions to prohibit. The representative noted that his aunt Marge was involved in a crash when the tuna casserole she was transporting slid off the seat and onto the floor.
There are all kinds of distractions, noted the representative, "Why single out cell phones"?
There may be reasons to ban the transport of tuna casseroles, but a public safety concern is probably not one of them...
Two factors need to be taken into account when considering legislation prohibiting an activity such as driving while talking (or texting) on a cell phone: The relative risk of a crash and the exposure (i.e., number of people engaged in that activity).
Studies using a variety of methods have found that the relative risk of a crash while talking on a cell phone is 4 times higher than driving without distraction. That crash risk is the same as driving drunk (at a blood alcohol level of .08). So, the relative risk is high (at least as high as the level that we have determined is unacceptable for drinking and driving).
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that at any point during the day 1 out of 10 drivers is talking on their cell phone. So, the exposure is also high. I assume that you would be alarmed if 1 out of 10 drivers were drunk. If so, then you should also be alarmed by this level of exposure with cell phones. Unfortunately, the number of people driving and talking or texting on the phone is growing rapidly. The problems associated with driver distraction are likely to get much worse.
Coupling the relative risk and the exposure makes talking (or texting) on a cell phone while driving a public safety hazard. In fact, the National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 28% of all injury and fatality crashes are caused by a driver using his or her cell phone. Other estimates have suggested that over 6000 people lose their life every year because of crashes caused by a cell phone!
If 28% of all crashes were caused by transporting tuna casseroles, then this would be a concern. However, the tuna casserole defense is meant to divert attention from the real issue. Given the large number of drivers who use their cell phone and the crash risk associated with the activity, some measure to change public behavior is warranted.