Texting doesn’t kill people, even when you’re behind the wheel while you’re doing it. No, what kills people is the many-ton metal object traveling at high speeds. And to prove it, Phillip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, took on the “texting-while-driving” epidemic and puts the scare—quite humorously—in its place.
Cohen thinks that our obsession with texting while driving is blinding us to the real problem: driving in general.
“The texting scare distracts us (I know, it’s ironic) from the giant problem staring us in the face: Our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).”
Cohen begins by dismantling a widely reported statistic that more than 3,000 teens die a year “from texting.” According to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data, only 2,623 teenagers total died in crashes in 2014 (the last year for which figures are available). Not all of them, presumably, were texting.
That’s not to say that texting while driving isn’t dangerous. It’s just that it is one of many ways you can die while in or near a car. Cyclists know that seeing a driver fiddling with their cell phone while they hurtle down the street is a terrifying sight, but you see it much less often than a car nudging into a bike lane without checking, or dashing through a junction, or speeding, or turning right without indicating or checking their blind spot.
To illustrate the point, Cohen shows two graphs. One plots vehicle deaths per 100,000 population against mobile phone subscriptions per 100,000 population, across U.S. states. The result is a mess of random noise with no correlation whatsoever. Then he compares vehicle miles driven, instead, and the chart suddenly snaps into place, with a neat clustering indicating that driving more does indeed lead to more deaths.
Cohen also uses Google’s Correlate tool to find out what people in the most deadly traffic states were searching for. He discovered that, in Alaska and other states where road deaths are above average, the leading search is “large, American pickup trucks.” No kidding. “I could think of several reasons why places where people are into pickup trucks have more than their predicted share of fatal accidents,” he writes.
Cohen’s takedown is amusing, but it hides a good point: Driving really is dangerous. Cars are getting safer and safer, for the occupants at least, but they’re still killing us at a rate of 10.4 deaths per 100,000 population. And while correcting the bad behavior of people who think its okay to give their attention to their phone instead of to the road ahead is a good thing, it also distracts us from the real problem: Cars have become so entrenched that we forget how bad they are.