Tuesday, August 02, 2005

New Jersey Considering Legislation to Ban Smoking While Driving

The New Jersey legislature is considering legislation that would ban smoking while driving. The bill, introduced by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange), is intended to reduce motor vehicle accidents by preventing distracted driving due to smoking. McKeon cited data from a AAA-sponsored study which showed that approximately 1% of accidents due to driver distraction are related to smoking.

Appearing on MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson, McKeon estimated that this legislation would prevent the 1% of distracted driver accidents related to smoking: "if you extrapolate it to the national statistics, there’s three million vehicular accidents a year. A third of them are related to driver distraction. So, take one percent of one-third. That’s 1,000. That’s 1,000 accidents a year. That’s 150 fatalities a year. That’s $70 million per year. And this legislation costs nothing. That’s pretty significant."

Since distraction-related accidents make up 33% of all motor vehicle accidents, McKeon is suggesting that if the New Jersey legislation were enacted in all states (where there are 3,000,000 motor vehicle accidents per year), 10,000 accidents (his math appears to have been off by an order of magnitude) and 150 fatalities could be prevented.

McKeon explained that the law is not intended to be enforced as a primary offense: that is, drivers will not be stopped for smoking while driving. Only if they are stopped for another reason will police be able to issue a citation for smoking: "People aren’t going to be pulled over for smoking while driving. It’s similar to how the seat belt laws used to be. It’s the same in New Jersey as to how the cell phones are. If you’re pulled over for another offense, speeding, whatever other primary offense it might be, then, in that circumstance, you can be."

The Rest of the Story

While smoking was related to 0.9% of distracted driver-related motor vehicle accidents in the AAA study, a number of other sources of driver distraction, each of which is easily preventable, were more important causes of accidents:
  • Adjusting the car radio, cassette player, or CD player was related to 11.4% of distraction-related crashes;
  • Another device or object brought into the vehicle was related to 2.9%;
  • Adjusting vehicle climate controls was related to 2.8%;
  • Eating or drinking was related to 1.7; and
  • Using cell phones was related to 1.5%.
If proponents of this legislation were truly interested in preventing driver distraction-related accidents, then it would make far more sense for them to address these more important preventable causes of distraction-related crashes before worrying about smoking (or to address smoking along with these other more important causes).

It seems to me that proponents of the New Jersey law are on a slippery slope upon which they cannot stand. If they argue that the impact of smoking while driving is so large that government must intervene into the privacy rights of individual drivers, then they must also agree that government should outlaw more important causes of distraction-related motor vehicle crashes, such as adjusting car radios, reading maps and books while driving, adjusting vehicle climate controls, eating and drinking, and talking on cell phones.

The fact that proponents of the legislation are singling out smoking as the only factor that needs government intervention suggests that the proposed legislation is an example more of moralizing than of a legitimate public health concern.

This impression is furthered by the fact that the bill would not allow for primary enforcement of violations. This negates any potential safety impact of the bill by removing any substantial deterrent function of the legislation. If drivers know they cannot be pulled over for smoking while driving, then what exactly is this legislation going to prevent? Its deterrent effect will be quite minimal, meaning that the estimates of accidents prevented and lives saved are completely overblown.

A quite interesting result from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety-sponsored study was that drivers who were smoking were more likely to have at least one hand on the steering wheel than drivers who were not smoking. While not smoking, 1.4% of drivers failed to have any hands on the wheel, while when smoking, only 0.8% of drivers failed to have any hands on the wheel. It was lighting or extinguishing a cigarette that seemed to impair driving performance: 3.6% of drivers failed to hold the steering wheel during that distraction.

But the proportion of drivers not holding the steering wheel was much higher with other activities: 7-8% for cell phone use; 5% for eating/drinking; 12% for grooming; 10% for manipulating vehicle controls; and 15% for reading or writing.

The study also found that driver performance was better for drivers who were smoking compared to those who were not: eye focus on the road was higher and the number of adverse vehicle events was lower. Again, lighting and extinguishing cigarettes was what was associated with impaired driver performance.

These results actually show that when smoking (but not in the process of lighting or extinguishing the cigarette), drivers are actually safer than when not smoking.

An evidence-based approach informed by the AAA-sponsored study would suggest that a far broader view of distracted driving is warranted and that any interventions to prevent distraction-related accidents should address not only the specific behavior but the effect of various aspects of the behavior on driver performance. The view that smoking is the primary driver distraction that needs government intervention just doesn't appear to be reasonable based on the data.

The rest of the story reveals that the attempt to ban smoking while driving is a misguided policy that ignores far greater causes of distraction-related accidents, will not actually prevent accidents, and represents a level of government intrusion into privacy rights that is not justified .

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