NTSB Misled Public On Cellphone ‘Toll’

Last week, in calling for a ban on even handsfree cellphone use behind the wheel, National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah A.P. Hersman denounced “talking, texting and driving” and said:

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.

Columnist Mona Charen:

Is that true? No. In a detailed report on distracted driving issued earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that only 995 deaths resulted from distraction by cell phones in 2010. The 3,000-person figure refers to all distracted driving.

It’s true that the problem of driver distraction due to cellphones (and radios, and other passengers, and the need to fish quarters out of one’s pocket approaching a toll booth) is a real one worth the attention of (mostly local and state) road operators. It’s also true, as columnist Charen notes, that overall highway deaths have been dropping steadily, from 44,599 in 1990 to 32,885 in 2010, even though there are now more licensed drivers and cars on the road, and of course vastly more phones. That’s no “epidemic.”

I round up some other voices at Overlawyered, including Cato’s own Radley Balko two years ago, Ira Stoll (per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, quoted on NPR, “states with cellphone bans have seen no real decrease in accident rates”) Marc Scribner at CEI (even bans on texting don’t seem to have worked as intended), and Instapundit Glenn Reynolds at Popular Mechanics (texting by the at-fault underage driver in the catastrophic Missouri crash was already illegal; and NTSB “seems to have deliberately downplayed” “more mundane causes” that contributed to that crash).

On this last, by the way, the NTSB’s own mission statement describes the board’s primary function as “determining the probable cause of transportation accidents” with “independence and objectivity.” If instead its leaders mislead the public about accident causes, and forsake their independence in exchange for a cheerleading role in DoT campaigns, one has to ask: is the board worth keeping?