Do politicians believe in science?
QUESTION: The new Road Traffic Bill is now before Parliament again for debate. One area of contention is whether there should be a complete ban on the use of electronic devices by drivers. What are your views on the subject?
— E.S., Kingston 6
INSURANCE HELPLINE: Thanks for seeking my comments on this very topical issue. I am glad that our lawmakers are discussing the matter once more. I was very disappointed that the person who piloted the bill during the last administration — a medical doctor and therefore a person trained in the sciences — allowed nonscientific considerations to inform the construct of Clause 121 of the long-overdue law.
Clause 121 prohibits a person operating a vehicle on the road from “using an electronic communication device, whether by holding it by one or both hands or with other parts of the body unless the ... device is (a) attached to the motor vehicle or is part of the fixture and remains affixed while it is used or operated; (b) specially adapted or designed to be affixed to the person of the driver as a handsfree device, and so used to enable the driver to use or operate the ... device without so holding it.”
Section 122 outlaws the use of electronic visual devices.
Electronic hands-free communication devices are increasingly becoming standard features of new motor vehicles. If Clause 121 remains as is, it will, perhaps unintentionally, perpetuate inequality in the society. Its impact on different segments of the population will not be the same.
The haves and others in the society who have the means (aka money) will be allowed to use their vehicle-affixed, handsfree phones when driving, while the others — the majority — will be the subject of fines of $30,000, assuming that Minister Mike Henry has his way.
Passengers and drivers of older motor vehicles — which dominate the vehicle population — and pedestrians would be at greater risk in the event of accidents than their counterparts who have the means to change their vehicles every two or three years.
Modern vehicles are embedded with many ‘smart’ features that reduce the chances of collision and lessen the severity of injuries to passengers.
Clause 121 does not have a foundation in medical science or to the process by which decisions are to be made and applied to all members of a modern society. In an April 30, 2003, article I wrote: “A team headed by a University of Utah psychologist, David Strayer found that conversations on hands-free phones slowed the reaction times of drivers. They also increased the risk of crashing.”
Talking on cell phones while driving causes a condition known as ‘inattention blindness’. Strayer and his colleagues compared data for hand-held and hands-free devices and found no difference in the impairment to driving, raising doubts about the scientific basis for regulations that prohibit only hand-held cell phones. This was according to a study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology Applied (Volume 9, No 1).
According to the American Psychological Association in Driven to Distraction — apa.org/research/action/drive. aspx — “psychological research is showing that when drivers use cell phones, whether hand-held or hands-off, their attention to the road drops and driving skills become even worse than if they had too much to drink. Epidemiological research has found that cellphone use is associated with a fourfold increase in the odds of getting into an accident — a risk comparable to that of driving with blood alcohol at the legal limit.”
The Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies has a Faculty of Medical Sciences. It also has a Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work. I have seen no evidence to suggest that on this important matter, where many lives are at stake, Parliament appears not to have sought the input of some of the specialists in medicine and psychology at that institution to inform the decision-making in relation to the proposed legislation.
It is very worrying that our leaders in Parliament or technocrats in the relevant departments have not found the time to access this basic information or reached out to institutions like UWI or UTech.
I disagree with Member of Parliament for North West Manchester Mikael Phillips and National Safety Council head Paula Fletcher. Until such time that there is scientific evidence that contradicts what Dr Strayer calls inattention blindness, there should be a complete ban on the use of ALL electronic devices (including headphones) for all drivers. The National Council of Taxi Associations should be asked to provide scientific evidence to support its argument that a complete ban on the use of all devices is “rubbish”.
When the use of seat belts was made mandatory, there were howls of protest by many persons in the society. Taxi drivers were among the loudest voices.
The authorities should use the experiences from that law to persuade drivers about the follies of using cellphones while driving in order to change behaviours.