It’s one of those things that’s almost too widely accepted to bother studying: mobile phone use in cars causes traffic accidents. Everyone — especially drivers who have taken risks in traffic playing with their phones — knows it’s true. Except it’s not true, apparently. According to a new study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, ban on mobile phones in vehicles in China reduced the number of driving while calling or texting but that reduction did not have any impact on the number of traffic accidents. Honestly, I did not see that coming. (Although maybe I should have; apparently scientific studies around the world have been suggesting this for years).
The study, conducted by State-supported labs in China in cooperation with American researchers, looked at the habits of drivers with phones and classified them as “frequent users” and “occasional users.” Researchers found that frequent phone users indeed drove more dangerously than occasional phone users did, driving faster and more erratically, making more violent turns and overtaking more other drivers. Surprisingly, however, this had nothing to do with mobile phone use; “frequent users” were driving more dangerously than “occasional users” even when they weren’t using their phones. After looking at the accident patterns and other data, researchers concluded that frequent mobile phone users were more dangerous drivers, period, and that their risky habits weren’t related to their mobile phone use. It turns out frequent mobile phone users are just worse all-around drivers.
So, if you like to use your phone a lot in the car, I’ve got a couple pieces of bad news for you. First, you’re probably not a good driver. And second, it turns out that even if you put your phone down, it probably isn’t going to help. The phone use is just a symptom, not the disease. I guess it’s time for you to go back to driving school!
China’s mobile phone ban is pretty toothless — it’s rarely enforced and the fines are minuscule — but this study seems to show that it doesn’t matter anyway. This means China will need to find another way of dealing with its traffic problems; accident injuries and fatalities in China are quite high compared to many other nations, and although things are improving, the numbers are still grim. If mobile phones aren’t the problem, something else is, and it looks like that something is drivers’ own terrible driving habits. Hanging up the phone is a good start, but it turns out that banning phones in the car sadly isn’t enough to get rid of idiot drivers.