Another Bogeyman: Texting While Driving – Graph/Chart

Texting while driving is one of the more recent evils. It’s a hot topic, with everyone from Oprah to AT&T advocating how horrible it is. Here’s a documentary, The Last Text, from AT&T:

I’ve been suspicious of this communal rage against texting since the beginning. It requires only a little critical thinking. Traffic fatality rates are down dramatically over the last 20 years. In that same time period texting has seen explosive growth. Graph below is from a Virginia Tech study.

If texting while driving is so dangerous, traffic fatalities should have increased. It doesn’t add up. The texting and driving deaths graph/chart above should make you think. And it’s not just fatalities. The graph shows crash rates.

I watched the above documentary and right away I noticed something. The first girl mentioned in the video was ejected from her vehicle. So was another girl. Having worked as a New York car accident lawyer, I know that’s odd. People normally are not ejected from their vehicles in accidents. Unless …

Well, let’s take a look at something from the video. Here’s a part of the accident report. The white highlighted area is from the video itself. I added the blue arrows.

The highlighted portion is the officer’s opinion: “cell phone usage contributed to this accident.” What’s not highlighted?

That’s what the arrows are for. First, the accident occurred at 12:13.

Second, the last text message was received at 12:05.

If the last text message happened eight minutes before the accident, that certainly calls into question whether texting was the real cause. Read the officer’s language again: “contributed to this accident.” He didn’t say “caused”. The hard truth is that we simply don’t know what caused the accident.

But we do know what killed Ashley Umscheid, and it is a well established cause of traffic fatalities.

She wasn’t wearing her seat belt. That’s why she was ejected from the vehicle.

Why does the video focus on what might have caused the accident instead of what clearly caused her death?

In the first accident shown, it is mentioned that the girl’s face was disfigured from sliding down the roadway. That makes it sound like she was ejected from the vehicle. And indeed at least one story indicates she was “partially ejected.”

Notice that the air bags are deployed and the car door is still shut. She was ejected through the window. This generally happens when you’re not wearing your seat belt.

We can all agree that it’s better for drivers to have their complete attention on the road. Distracted driving is a problem and does cause accidents. But there are all kinds of distractions, including music, food, conversation within the car, or even just random thoughts. In the all-encompassing drive for safety and security, we could ban drive-thru restaurants, car stereos, vanity mirrors, even passengers.

So many of these deaths are caused by head injuries. Perhaps we should all wear helmets in our cars, like race car drivers do. That would save a lot of lives. Should we have a helmet law for car drivers and passengers? We require car seats for children even though they’re really no more effective than seat belts.

Benjamin Franklin once said:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Statists use these bogeymen to create more laws, giving the government more power and taking away more of our liberty. I’m not talking about the narrowly framed liberty to text and drive (or drink and drive, speed, wear seat belts, or use the drugs of your choice). I’m talking about the broader liberty to be free from search, seizure and arrest.

Along the way, of course, government wastes our money by spending so much on police, prosecutors, courts and jails, all with little or no effect on our actual safety.

Think back to the founders of our nation. Ask yourself this question – What Would George Do? George Washington, that is.

If George Washington was stopped at a “traffic safety checkpoint”, he’d run the constable through with his sword and continue on his way. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Washington did have a temper. Of course violence against police is not the answer. But we should have policies that focus our police on the things that are important (like violent crime), and do all we can to keep them from harassing people in their everyday lives.

As citizens and voters, we all need to be wary of how statists use these bogeymen to distract us from what’s important. That’s how they take our liberty away.

9 Comments

  1. Warren,

    How does anyone know exactly the moment when the accident occurred? Could it have been 1213 when 9-1-1 received a call stating there had been an accident and because it looks like a rural road cars didn’t come u p on the accident right away?

    Trust me I think this texting while driving media frenzy is crap I just had that question. What is next? You can’t look at a hot girl while driving? No drinking coffee, your view could be blocked by the cup? No radio? When does it end?

  2. “How does anyone know exactly the moment when the accident occurred?”

    Good question Dan. We don’t know when it occurred. It is possible that this was determined objectively. Perhaps a witness saw it happen and called 911 immediately after it happened. We can’t know.

    So we don’t know if texting caused this accident. But we do know that the failure to use the seat belt caused her death. Or at least we are much more sure of that.

  3. The goal should be to focus on driving while driving, NOT multitasking something else. A secondary goal should be wearing a seat belt.

    End of story.

  4. “I’ve been suspicious of this communal rage against texting since the beginning. It requires only a little critical thinking.”

    Critical thinking is wonderful, isn’t it? To say, like the video does, that a person is 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident when texting and driving is a generalization – something counter to critical thinking. The likelihood of anyone being in an accident while driving depends upon much more than just whether somebody is texting or not, so sometimes one might be 0 times more likely to be in an accident when texting and driving, and other times one might be 100% more likely.

    That said, my own critical thinking keeps me from accepting parts of your article as true.

    “If texting while driving is so dangerous, traffic fatalities should have increased. It doesn’t add up. The texting and driving deaths graph/chart above should make you think.”

    That graph is hardly relevant to any correlation between texting while driving and traffic fatalities, because it’s not a “texting and driving deaths graph/chart” as you stated. It’s a wireless subscribers/crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled graph/chart. Furthermore, “traffic fatalities” include those prompted by any cause, so a decrease in them does not indicate whether texting while driving is dangerous or not, let alone just how dangerous it can be.

    “Read the officer’s language again: “contributed to this accident.” He didn’t say “caused”. The hard truth is that we simply don’t know what caused the accident. But we do know what killed Ashley Umscheid, and it is a well established cause of traffic fatalities. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt. That’s why she was ejected from the vehicle.”

    You’re incorrect in saying that not wearing her seat belt killed her. Injuries sustained from impact with other objects killed her. Ejecting from a car doesn’t guarantee death, so it’s important for us to make that distinction.

    Yes, not wearing her seat belt allowed for her ejection, but hitting the median caused her ejection. Her steering into the median caused her hitting the median. What caused her steering into the median? That’s what’s at question. As you have correctly pointed out, we don’t know and can only (at least by watching the video) speculate what caused her to do that.

    Maybe she did it intentionally. If that’s the case, it’s irrelevant to texting and driving. Or maybe she was distracted by any one of the common distractions you mentioned later in the article.

    “But there are all kinds of distractions, including music, food, conversation within the car, or even just random thoughts. ”

    All these can certainly be deadly distractions. I don’t argue that at all. But they’re different from texting.

    One doesn’t have to look at music, food, conversation, or random thoughts to be distracted by these things. Even though they don’t require the use of sight, distraction by them is still limiting to the drivers’ awareness required for safety and thus worth being concerned about, but distraction by them is not AS limiting as is texting, primarily because reading a text message requires looking at the phone. Any portion of sight devoted to a phone is a portion of sight not devoted to the roadway and any obstacles on or around it.

    But for the points you were apparently trying to make in your article, it doesn’t matter what caused Ashley Umscheid to steer into the median. Our inability to know what caused her to steer toward the median is neither evidence that texting while driving is dangerous, nor that texting while driving is not dangerous. Thus her case is no logical reason to oppose a ban on texting while driving.

    Furthermore, even if our inability to know what caused her to steer toward the median were logical reason to oppose a ban on texting while driving, it’s still just one case out of many. I imagine we could find at least one other case that can objectively and truthfully state texting did create the distraction that led to collision. Maybe we could even find one within that video you posted.

    “In the all-encompassing drive for safety and security, we could ban drive-thru restaurants, car stereos, vanity mirrors, even passengers.”

    Drive-thru restaurants don’t require we drive while eating what we purchase from them. Car stereos don’t require we have them powered on or listen to them while driving. Vanity mirrors don’t require we look at them while driving. Passengers don’t require we pay attention to them while driving. For these reasons, you’re not drawing a parallel comparison between those items and the act of texting while driving. Texting while driving requires a driver to distract himself/herself from some aspect of driving.

    “Perhaps we should all wear helmets in our cars, like race car drivers do.”

    Though I’m guessing you proposed that intending to portray it as a “bad” or “stupid” idea, I think this suggestion seems sensible.

    “Should we have a helmet law for car drivers and passengers?”

    The act of wearing a helmet could be an attempt to protect yourself. The act of refraining from texting while driving could be an attempt to protect not only yourself, but also other road users. Mandating people wear helmets doesn’t involve mandating people remove potential threats they pose to others, so a helmet law is not a parallel comparison to illegalizing texting while driving.

    “Statists use these bogeymen to create more laws, giving the government more power and taking away more of our liberty.”

    Similar to how you cite a chart and claim it says something it doesn’t? Yeah, people misuse stats all the time, but that doesn’t mean we have to fail in our own critical thinking by simply dismissing everything they’re saying.

    “Along the way, of course, government wastes our money by spending so much on police, prosecutors, courts and jails, all with little or no effect on our actual safety.”

    I’m in agreement with you that many laws are impractical, and thus we can do more to decrease government spending, but it’s not always easy to tell just what is and isn’t a waste of money, so this effort will take much time, I think.

    “Think back to the founders of our nation. Ask yourself this question – What Would George Do? George Washington, that is.

    If George Washington was stopped at a “traffic safety checkpoint”, he’d run the constable through with his sword and continue on his way. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Washington did have a temper.”

    I see no point in modeling my behavior after that of somebody else. That’s quite the opposite of critical thinking, which can help us face current conditions much more than the recorded actions of someone who lived between 281 and 214 years ago when automobiles didn’t even exist. That’s not to say concepts can’t be learned from contemplating his actions, but it is to say that any concepts for character we can learn from observing his behavior we can also learn from just thinking about current circumstances.

    “But we should have policies that focus our police on the things that are important (like violent crime)”

    How do you define “important”?

    “and do all we can to keep them from harassing people in their everyday lives.”

    To say that police officers simply “harass” people is quite the generalization to make. How exactly do you define “harassing”, what about it do you oppose, and what are all the grounds upon which you oppose it?

  5. Wow Caleb. TLDR.

    To Warren’s larger, correct point:

    “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”
    ― Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome

    You may recall, that in the end It didn’t work out well for Rome. Neither will it work out well for New York, “The Empire State”.

  6. texting distracts the driver because you are looking at the phone to do so, eating distracts the driver because I do look at my food when eating when you taste or bite into something that shouldn’ tbe there; music distracts because you are looking at what station you are changing it to, conversations are distracting because if you’re speaking it’s common to look at the person you’re speaking to even if it’s for a split second or three, it’s still time that you took focus off the road and driving; random thoughts as well because your not concetrating on the driving; even ADD/ADHD who easily ditract because of other things that catch their attention; helmets would distract our vision and create a bigger blind spot

  7. I worked a wreck (yes, I’m one of those harassing police officers) where a Chrysler 200 was broadsided at 55 mph. Driver walked away with not a scratch. I put it to you, perhaps the reason fatalities haven’t gone up is because vehicles are being designed with more safety features as years progress. 2008 Land Rover on the Broad River Bridge. Posted speed is 60 so everyone drives 70-80. Hit both side rails (cement) then flipped. Driver had a cut on his elbow. You shouldn’t look at whether fatalities have increased for this reason. Might be more valid if you looked at accidents in general compared to when cel phones weren’t so prevalent. Or maybe just as far back as the advent of texting. Food for thought.

  8. I was commenting on the statement after the graph, but I see your point. I guess it depends on the source of information. Here in South Carolina it became such a frequent problem, the state added ‘cel phone’ to the Traffic Collision report as a choice under the Cause block. Maybe its just a knee-jerk reaction to appease those “Sky is falling” folks, or perhaps the demographic is different here and we have a problem your neck of the woods doesn’t.

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