The National Transportation Safety Board’s recent recommendation that all 50 states ban all cell phone (including hands-free) and personal electronic device use when driving got a lot of attention. Now it turns out that the NTSB’s chairman, Deborah Hersman, has knowingly used false statistics to promote that proposed ban. The NTSB’s recommendation came in the wake of the report on a multi-vehicle fatality accident in Gray Summuit Missouri, where texting behind the wheel was determined to be one (but not the only) contributing factor. In her opening statement to the report, which is still on the NTSB web site, Hersman said,
And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that’s what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.
I think that any reasonable person would agree that Chairman Hersman is implying that 3,000 people a year are killed in road accidents caused by texting. That’s simply not true.
If that was true, that would mean about 10% of all traffic fatalities are caused specifically by texting. That figure seemed a bit high so conservative columnist Mona Charen contacted the NTSB and found out that the 3,000 fatalities statistic actually was for all distracted driving. Of those ~3,000 fatalities, the agency considered 995 to be due to cellphone use. So NTSB Chairman Hersman was misleading the public, exaggerating the risk of cellphone use by a factor of at least three.
Charen characterized Hersman’s statement as “fudging figures”. I think Mona was being charitable. Chairman Hersman was lying or at the least, dissembling. Lying isn’t just saying a mistruth, it’s knowingly saying something you know is wrong. That Hersman and the NTSB knew that she was being deceptive can be seen from the op-ed Hersman published yesterday justifying the agency’s position, in the Washington Post. She used almost the same passage as in her original statement but she avoided using specific figures, perhaps because in the intervening time between the two statements Charen had contacted the NTSB for clarification. Hersmans op-ed piece, though, continues to obfuscate rather than clarify.
At the NTSB, our charge is to investigate accidents, learn from them and recommend changes. In Gray Summit and on highways across the United States, thousands of people were killed last year in the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.
Washington residents remember well the 2009 Metro crash on the Red Line in which nine people were killed. The number of fatalities from distractions on U.S. roadways is the equivalent of one Metro crash every day of the year.
Not quite the same level of mistruth, so we’ll call it dissimulation rather than an outright lie. Yes, it avoids attributing a specific number of fatalities to cellphone use, or more specifically to texting behind the wheel. Still, since 995 isn’t quite one thousand let along “thousands”, it’s still not close to the truth and by conflating texting with all cellphone use Hersman is still trying to grossly exaggerate the problem.
If you note, in the second paragraph she says that the figure of approximately 3,000 is “from distractions”, though she doesn’t clarify that those distractions are not just cellphone use. Hersman must have known that her original statement at the NTSB site was factually wrong. At the same time, though, by bringing up the total number of fatalities due to distracted driving in the context of a proposed ban on cellphone use behind the wheel, she’s still deliberately conflating all distracted driving with cellphone use, just as her earlier statement had conflated texting with other cellphone use.
Undoubtedly some people can be distracted from driving by using their cellphone. However, studies of large groups of drivers show that people who use cellphones in general have fewer accidents than people who don’t have cellphones. You have to assume that some of those cellphone users are doing so behind the wheel. If cellphone distraction is the terrible problem that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Deborah Hersman and the NTSB think it is, as a group cellphone users should have more accidents, not fewer. Don’t expect, though Hersman and others like her to be persuaded by the facts when they’re busy manipulating, massaging and outright lying about the data in order to support their preordained outcome.
Over the past 50 years, traffic fatalities in the US have plummeted by 40%, while the number of cars and miles driven has continued to rise. Cars are much safer than they ever were, so auto safety bureaucrats must work ever harder to justify their own jobs. It’s quite possible that using a cellphone while driving is indeed distracting to most drivers, but lying about the data isn’t going to help the bureaucrats’ case.