2012-09-10

Killer Cell Phones

Way back in May of 2010, I argued that Ontario's ban on cell phone use while driving made little rational sense. To this day, I believe what I wrote then. Here in Texas, using a cellular phone while driving is not against the law. People seem to do it about as often as they do in Ontario. I don't have any accident statistics to report, but a little perspective goes a long way: Both in Texas and Ontario, people use cellular phones while driving all the time, and while some accidents can be attributed to cell phone use, so too can a vast number of safe, uneventful automobile rides be attributed to instances of cell phone use.

That is, when we see a few accidents caused by cellular phone use, we are quick to condemn cell phones. When we see no such accident, we seldom go back and revise our perspective on the relative safety of talking on the phone while driving.

Similarly, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris argue in The Wall Street Journal that it is time to re-visit the ban on cellular phone and personal electronic use on airline flights:
Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it? Human minds are notoriously overzealous "cause detectors." When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device.
But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don't consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don't consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that there are multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.
Considering cell phone bans both while driving and while riding in a passenger plane, it is fair to say that humans fear cell phones.

But wait - there's more! In the hilariously titled blog post "Ur Cellphone Asplode?" rjfrankenberger debunks yet another cell phone fear-mongering urban legend: the notion that answering your cell phone while pumping gas will trigger a massive explosion. He/she concludes:
The moral of this story? Just because it’s on a sign, doesn’t mean it’s true. Oh… and make sure that you touch the frame of your car and discharge those e-fields before the next time you pump gas. Especially if your pumping gas next to me. I’m not in the mood for being exploded.
So why do we humans let cellular phones scare us so much? Any ideas?