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How Dangerous is Driving with a Cell Phone? Less Than You Think

Posted in Politics, Traffic, Travel by Vito Rispo | August 5th, 2008 | Leave a Reply |

Suzanne just wrote about the new Minnesota ban on texting while driving, and that reminded me of economics paper I recently read.
Two University of California, Berkeley graduate student economists did what’s called a natural experiment about cell phone usage and auto accidents, which means they used observations in the real world instead of in a controlled laboratory. Saurabh Bargrava and Vikram Pathania came to the conclusion that the quick rise in cell phone usage in recent years is not matched by an increase in fatal or non-fatal car crashes. This goes against everything you’ve probably heard, but they back it up with some very awesome facts. And a 54 page economics paper.

Check it, yo:
…we document a 20-30% rise in cellular call volume during the time of the day– 9pm on weekdays– when cell phone providers systematically transition from “peak” to “off-peak” pricing. We then measure the resulting increase in fatal and non-fatal crashes during this period as compared to weekends and earlier periods which serve as controls. We find no evidence for a rise in crashes, and estimate small positive upper bounds for the effect size at 9pm (~1% for all crashes, and 2.4% for fatal crashes).

We confirm our results with three additional empirical approaches—we compare trends in cell phone ownership and crashes across areas of contiguous economic activity over time, investigate whether differences in urban versus rural crash rates mirror identified gaps in urban-rural cellular ownership, and finally estimate the impact of legislation banning driver cell phone use on crash rates. None of the additional analyses produces evidence for a positive link between cellular use and vehicle crashes.

This paper is probably the single most comprehensive cell phone and driving experiment paper I have ever read. And I’ve read 1.
Seriously though, this paper is damn thorough. Thorough and surprising.

the related press release

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