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Cellphones: Banning the Symptom Will Not Cure the Disease

Since starting these "now’n’then" columns I have avoided reference, thinking it some kind of conflict of interest, to my own research in traffic safety. Two things have changed my mind.

Firstly, Lynn Helpard’s decision to undertake a series of articles on traffic safety. (My early work appeared in CAW Dec 18 and WoW January. It is expected that others will join the discussion in the near future.)

Secondly, four articles on cellphones in the Jan 16 National Post – all of them barking up the wrong tree! (The only display of wisdom in the four articles was by Emile Therien, president of the Canada Safety Council, who said, "Banning cellphones would be counterproductive and unenforceable. We should be focusing on driver education and attitudes.")

To be very brief my research has shown that when the economy starts to boom so does the accident rate. People spend too much time thinking about their improving economic prospects and not enough about driving. My Detroit paper (SAE, Feb’97) showed this close correspondence of economics and traffic fatality rate on the expressways of Europe and the Paris (FISITA Oct’98) and Seoul (FISITA Jun’00) papers extended that correspondence to all road traffic and to countries representing every inhabited continent.

Discussions with BMW engineers over the last half of ’00 have shown that the best way to communicate the kind of deep distraction that is at the root of all traffic accidents is to call it the Absent Minded Professor Syndrome or AMPS.

Returning to cellphones it is common to many countries that the authorities are all pointing to this horrible new distraction. But these countries all have something else in common. The traffic fatality rate in all those countries has been flat or declining throughout the ‘90’s while cellphone use has literally exploded! (The CSC estimates the number in use in Canadian vehicles is now over seven million.)

Cellphones go from 0 to 7 million in just 10 seconds (cosmological time) without moving the fatality rate. How can this be!

Elementary, my dear Watson. The answer is, "Substitution".

The problem is distraction. It doesn’t matter by what. The business type who has an accident in ’99 "because he was using his cellphone" would have had the same accident in ’89 thinking about the same business opportunity. Thus it can be seen that the cellphone is only a label on some distracted drivers. The others driving around in full AMPS cannot be detected. (Yet. The car industry is working on it).

Banning cellphones is banning the symptom rather than attempting to cure, or at least mitigate, the disease of distraction. Once the problem has been "well stated" however there are several things the wise driver can do … and several other things that "public authorities" could do to help those wise drivers in combating the AMPS. But I’ve run out of time and room for this column. More later. God, and my editor, willing.