Calling in Cars: What Are the Benefits?

Guest Bloggers

Guest Bloggers | Dec 14, 2011

By Paul Atchley

Economists like to talk about “unintended consequences” to any law or rule.  In a previous post, I made a case for the economic costs of distracted driving, but in all fairness, we should think about whether there could possibly be any “unintended consequences” to a ban on distracted driving.  In performing a cost benefit analysis, are there any benefits to using cellular phones while driving that a distracted driving ban would eliminate?

Such an analysis is not new. It was over a decade ago that authors from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis commissioned a series of focus groups to examine benefits of in-vehicle cellular phone use. They identified sixteen potential benefits across five areas (personal, family/household, social network, business and community). Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from these focus group results to understand what we would lose by giving up cellular phones while driving.

Personal and family/household benefits include improving the efficiency of daily living by reducing the number of car trips a household makes, and improving personal or parental peace of mind through ready communication with loved ones. As someone who requires at least three trips to a hardware store to complete any job, the idea of fewer car trips really resonates with me. And no one can deny that having a phone is useful for keeping track of the kids. But the question remains: Do these benefits require that the phone be used while driving? I don’t see a compelling reason to re-check a project list with my spouse while moving at 45mph, and teen drivers are dangerous enough without demanding that they answer their phones while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. The benefits of both household efficiency and personal peace of mind can still be realized with a phone used in a parked car.

What about the benefits that arise from using a cell phone on the road to call in a drunk driver, a breakdown or a crash? As we know that a driver talking on a cell phone is, statistically speaking, nearly identical in behavior to a driver who has been drinking, are we truly realizing any benefits by adding what amounts to another drunk driver on the road to make phone calls for assistance? Again, all of these tasks can be accomplished as effectively, and more safely, with a phone in a parked car.

And what about increased business productivity? Are we going to crash our economy by trying to not crash our cars while making that big business deal?

Probably not. First, if you want to make a good deal, don’t negotiate while driving. Business decision making is poor while driving -- a fact that's been verified by several studies. (And by the way, do we really need these studies to tell us that attending to the business of driving translates into less available brain power for a phone conversation?) Second, research by the National Safety Council shows no impact to productivity after bans on cell use while driving have been instituted. While 7% of the companies surveyed as a part of the NSC's research did indicate a decrease in productivity following a ban, 19% indicated an increase in productivity. Twenty-two percent of companies surveyed said that cell phone bans had no effect on productivity, and the remaining half said it was too soon to tell how cell phone bans may or may not have an impact.

Perhaps more importantly, the research showed that cell phone bans led to decreases in crash rates and property damage. Many companies and municipalities have been successfully sued for millions of dollars because of crashes involving employees who were driving while distracted. They can attest to the fact that not only are crashes a big hit to their organizations' bottom lines, but they also manage to increase lost employee time while lowering public goodwill. To quote one plaintiff's lawyer, “Can you imagine how a jury would react if they knew a business regularly knew about, encouraged and profited from its employees driving while intoxicated?”

While we would certainly lose some conveniences by disconnecting while driving, it's pretty clear from the results of our cost benefit analysis that many of those benefits are perceived, not real. It's even more clear that those benefits which are real can still be obtained, at no additional risk, by simply pulling the car over to use the phone.

To this scientist and researcher, the case is closed. Banning cell phone use while a vehicle is in motion has little or no negative consequence, and results in the equivalent of one more drunk driver being taken off the roads. That seems like a pretty significant benefit.

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