Now: Cell Phone Check Points

California's "hands-free" cell phone law had only been in effect a few hours before police across the state began setting up checkpoints to nab gabbers.

I would doubt these checkpoints are legal.  The Supreme Court has approved checkpoints to find drunk drivers and fugitives and to catch illegal immigrants or drug traffickers near the border, but has generally said they're unconstitutional for other purposes—including, believe it or not, for random drug searches.

MORE:  Per the comments, the newscast may have been misleading in calling these "checkpoints."  If it's just a matter of police watching from the side of the road as people drive by, it's not a checkpoint.  Which, come to think of it, is almost certainly what's happening.  If these were actual checkpoints, you'd think most people would have the common sense to hang up as they approach.

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  • onlyalad||

    That doesn't look like much of a "checkpoint." It looks more like they've got the cop sitting there and pulling over anybody they see with the phone.

    I assumed from the headline that they were stopping everybody and ticketing them if they don't have the hands-free.

    Calling this a checkpoint is misleading. Might as well say the cop sitting by the side of the road with a radar gun is a checkpoint too.

  • Colin||

    I certainly don't agree with the checkpoints, but I must admit this is one of the few anti-libertarian laws I like.

    When I saw the sign on the freeway this morning about this, I had to smile.

  • Elemenope||

    It's a fine line, after all. If some fucker plows into me because he just can't bring himself to pull over while chatting with his mistress, then his actions have harmed me through no fault of my own, and deserves to feel the sanction of the law.

    However, to proscribe an entire class of behavior (driving while talking on a cellphone) should require a steep evidentiary standard. While there is a decent correlation between people talking-while-driving and accidents, is it strong enough for the blanket prohibition?

  • ||

    While there is a decent correlation between people talking-while-driving and accidents, is it strong enough for the blanket prohibition?

    No.

  • Elemenope||

    No.

    Sez the expert.

  • McH2O||

    The main distraction from talking on a cell phone while driving is the mental concentration it takes to hold a conversation, not the physical concentration of holding a phone to your ear. If it were they would have outlawed manual transmissions by now. So, that being said, I don't think this law is going to make any difference. This is the kind of law libertarians should be opposed to, one that needlessly forbids an activity.

  • Elemenope||

    The main distraction from talking on a cell phone while driving is the mental concentration it takes to hold a conversation, not the physical concentration of holding a phone to your ear. If it were they would have outlawed manual transmissions by now. So, that being said, I don't think this law is going to make any difference.

    A much better point. See, MikeP? When people make *Arguments* others may become convinced!

  • Johnny Nowhere||

    clearly, the solution is to ban ALL conversations in cars. better yet, the driver should be isolated from the rest of the passenger compartment by a Cone of Silence.

  • PC||

    Don't scratch your ear during driving, it might cause suspicion.

  • ||

    While I tend to agree that the physical distraction is not what's important, the manual transmission doesn't work. Shifting is part of driving-to make decisions about when to shift, one must be aware of what the road is doing, what traffic is doing, and what the car is doing. In other words, the driver has to focus on driving.

  • ||

    See, MikeP? When people make *Arguments* others may become convinced!

    I'm sorry. The burden of proof before the state should pass idiotic laws ought to be so high, I thought one word would have been enough. Very well.

    After reading the most recent work on this -- both Kolko's May study that produced the "300 fewer fatalities" per year in California due to this law that you hear bantered by reporters and even the governor, as well as Kolko's 2007 working paper which has more of the data -- I have to say I am not convinced.

    It is of note that the smallest sets Kolko works with -- accidents on wet roads or in bad weather -- are the ones that show the greatest effect. He posits that it is because two hands are on the wheel. I would suggest that it is a statistical blip. Unfortunately he provides no other comparisons for robustness -- either to individual states rather than averages over states or to other subsets unlikely to have any correlation to cell phone usage.

    It is also of note that most of California has good weather and dry roads most of the time, so a blanket cell phone ban is not defensible on the basis of lowering fatalities in bad weather and on wet roads.

    By the way...

    While there is a decent correlation between people talking-while-driving and accidents...

    Cite?

  • Paul||

    Talking on a cell phone isn't dangerous. dialing on a cell phone is when the danger occurs. Ditto for text messaging.

    Washington's law just went into effect today. I will continue talking on my cell phone as god intended: sans hands free.

    REVOLUTION!!!

  • Paul||

    While there is a decent correlation between people talking-while-driving and accidents...

    I believe there's also decent correlation between having a passenger in the vehicle and accidents, too.

  • ||

  • onlyalad||

    Per the comments, the newscast may have been misleading in calling these "checkpoints." If it's just a matter of police watching from the side of the road as people drive by, it's not a checkpoint. Which, come to think of it, is almost certainly what's happening. If these were actual checkpoints, you'd think most people would have the common sense to hang up as they approach.

    See that's what I thought too. I mean if they're going to stop everybody and inspect their phones, well that's one thing. But just pulling people over more or less as they come...I just can't get too excited about that.

    FWIW I think the law is dumb. I doubt seriously that it will have any impact on the number of traffic accidents. But it allows the lawmakers of the PRC to say they've done something by god!

  • onlyalad||

    If they really want to eliminate distraction on the road they should ban billboards. Especially the ones for the strip bars. Or bumperstickers. And good-looking women should not be allowed to even be on the road. People picking their nose is right out. I spend a lot of time distracted by all those things while on the road. :)

    Then again, what would I look at while I'm stopped for an hour and a half on the 91 freeway?

  • ||

    But it allows the lawmakers of the PRC to say they've done something by god!

    Don't forget the ink that has been spilled covering the run up to this day. The government-journalism complex has had a ball.

  • ||

    The Supreme Court has approved checkpoints to find drunk drivers and fugitives and to catch illegal immigrants or drug traffickers near the border, but has generally said they're unconstitutional for other purposes-including, believe it or not, for random drug searches.

    tell that to our locals. whenever they announce a checkpoint, they always explicitly say it's for drunks and for registration and driver's license violations.

  • ||

    Per the comments, the newscast may have been misleading in calling these "checkpoints."

    My vote would be for "sting operation" as the appropriate term. I'm guessing they're much like the sting operation in which Chicago's finest busted me for driving the four or so blocks from my apartment to the supermarket without a safety belt on. I came up to a four-way stop, and just as I'm about to stop a plain-clothes police officer starts to cross the street as if heading to the laundromat on the other side. He quickly peers into my car as I stop and then motions me to proceed through the intersection where a uniformed cop is waiting by the side of the road to ticket me.

    Sure, it sucked to get a $25 ticket the week before Christmas, but what price tag can you put on your own well-being?

  • ||

    When I worked in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, there was a problem of cars not stopping for pedestrians in the crosswalks on Main Street.

    For some reason, the State Police decided that it was their job to do something about the problem, so they staged a sting. A statie in street clothes would start to cross the street, and see if the car stopped. If it didn't, another statie down the road would waive him over.

    The moral of the story: If you're ever in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and you see a six-and-a-half-foot tall, six foot wide white guy with a crew cut stepping off the sidewalk in front of your car - stop.

  • Paul||

    If you're ever in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and you see a six-and-a-half-foot tall, six foot wide white guy with a crew cut and eating a donut stepping off the sidewalk in front of your car - stop.

    Fixed.

    Oh, by the way, joe, us traffic sissies on the West Coast obey pedestrian and traffic laws...to a fault. I was born in the southwest where there were no pedestrians so-- the rules were kind of sketchy there. Anyhoo, I went to Boston a year ago, and I was horrified at how throngs...THRONGS I SAY-- of pedestrians would just cross the street, whenever. Lights be damned. After living 20 years here on the West Coast, it was a bit of culture shock.

  • Travis||

    They should ban driving atuomobiles. Studies have shown that driving atoumobiles is the #1 cause for traffic related deaths on California highways.

  • Elemenope||

    Anyhoo, I went to Boston a year ago, and I was horrified at how throngs...THRONGS I SAY-- of pedestrians would just cross the street, whenever. Lights be damned. After living 20 years here on the West Coast, it was a bit of culture shock.

    Back in my high-school days the team and I took a trip to Baltimore for our nat'l championship, and being from Rhode Island, we did as we normally do (as you say, in throngs, crossing *whenever*, and might I say, *wherever*). A cop freaked out on us something fierce, and we all just looked perplexed not understanding what all the fuss was about.

    It has come to my attention since then that other parts of the country use sidewalks and crosswalks less as guidelines than actual *rules*.

  • Neu Mejican||

    clearly, the solution is to ban ALL conversations in cars. better yet, the driver should be isolated from the rest of the passenger compartment by a Cone of Silence.

    A passenger in the car tends to be aware of driving context to a degree that they modulate their conversational demands on the driver as the cognitive load on the driver changes. Someone on the other end of a cell-phone can't modulate with the driving context. This makes the two activities distinctly different in terms of increased driving risk.

    So, the hands-free only laws make very little sense as they do not address the source of the danger.

  • Neu Mejican||

    MikeP,

    If 300 deaths per year is not a big enough effect to warrant the law...what level of life-saving-effect would be large enough in your estimation?

    That's around an 8% reduction.
    I am surprised that big an effect can be had with such a simple intervention...given all the other potential causes of traffic deaths.

  • Paul||

    A passenger in the car tends to be aware of driving context to a degree that they modulate their conversational demands on the driver as the cognitive load on the driver changes. Someone on the other end of a cell-phone can't modulate with the driving context.

    Nice try. You've never met my mother.

  • ||

    If 300 deaths per year is not a big enough effect to warrant the law...what level of life-saving-effect would be large enough in your estimation?

    As I noted, I find the construction of that number to be extremely suspect.

    I am surprised that big an effect can be had with such a simple intervention...given all the other potential causes of traffic deaths.

    As well you should be, since it is most likely a statistical fabrication.

  • Neu Mejican||

    MikeP,

    As I noted, I find the construction of that number to be extremely suspect.

    Sure, but assuming it was true, would you find it a reasonable justification for the law?

    If not, how much more effective would it need to be?

    What level of evidence would be sufficient to make you believe the projections?

    Serious questions.

  • ||

    I am surprised that big an effect can be had with such a simple intervention.

    I am incredulous. This strikes me as such an astonishing number (on par with the casualty statistics claiming the fighting in Iraq has been worse than the fighting in WWII) that I require extraordinary proof.

  • ||

    Sure, but assuming it was true, would you find it a reasonable justification for the law?

    Reasonable? It's in the ballpark. At $5 million per death, that's $1.5 billion. If, say, 9% of the 33 billion vehicle miles traveled per year in California find the driver on a hands-full phone, that would be 3 billion vehicle miles. So the cost of fatalities due to usage would be 50 cents per mile traveled.

    Actually, that's about where my own intuition would put the safety costs in my experience. Some calls are worth a buck every couple minutes: I take those calls. Some aren't, and I either don't answer, or I make it a short call. I don't like to talk on the phone while driving.

    Since it isn't that clear cut, I don't think it passes the test of both reasonableness and the test of necessity that warrants forceful legislation. I would like to decide which calls I take and how I take them.

    Also, and especially because I drive a manual transmission, I find holding the phone to my ear an excellent cue that I need to pay a lot of attention to driving. When I'm talking on the earpiece, I don't get that sensory cue.

  • ||

    I drove around with an ice cream cone in my hand for a while today. I saw a cop in a squad car pay careful attention, from a distance, to what I was holding. Maybe it was just me, but he seemed disappointed when I raised the cone to my mouth and started to lick.

    Ice cream rarely tastes that good. And it isn't even the Fourth of July.

  • The Answer Man||

    Someone on the other end of a cell-phone can't modulate with the driving context.


    Simple: Mandatory webcams everywhere!

  • @ James||

    Coming soon to a jurisdiction near you: Lick-Prohibition.

  • ||

    ClubMedSux wrote: "...just as I'm about to stop a plain-clothes police officer starts to cross the street as if heading to the laundromat on the other side. He quickly peers into my car as I stop and then motions me to proceed through the intersection where a uniformed cop is waiting by the side of the road to ticket me."

    Here in California, I was actually wearing a seatbelt, but the car I was in was an older model that had two-part shoulder/lap belts, and I had not fastened the shoulder portion. A cop sees no shoulder belt, pulls me over, and I show him the lap belt in place. He tells me it is up to the officer to decide whether the appropriate level of restraint had been applied, deemed mine inappropriate, and ticketed me. Mind you, I wasn't driving on the highway. I was coming out of a service station on a normal, 30MPH speed-limit city street, after getting the car smog-checked, as a favor to my wife, who usually drove that vehicle.

    As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. $25 fine for me, too, right AFTER Xmas, when we certainly didn't need to lose the money. But then again, it was for our own protection and safety, so I suppose I should feel grateful to our protectors.

  • ||

    What level of evidence would be sufficient to make you believe the projections?

    More time... More studies... More peer review... More people who were experts in traffic and statistics caring enough to study the issue a lot more before legislators swooped in and "did something."

    I at least would like to see all the numbers.

    The fact that statistical significance was found by the Kolko study only for bad driving conditions is frankly odd. In bad driving conditions, I suspect many fewer people are on the phone. The study also looks at the NYC tri-state area and compares it against an average over the rest of the country. This is of course a necessity: That's where the nanny statists struck first. Still, this limitation means that all sorts of weather effects -- those exact effects that the study finds significant -- are going to be materially identical in the studied population compared to the control. And since the mid-Atlantic has famously high variance in its weather compared to the rest of the country, and since his proxies for weather are inches of precipitation and degree days -- not snow and ice per se, which I suspect have high fatality rates -- I don't think there is nearly enough reason to believe that he's finding a real effect due to cell phone usage. By the way, cell phone ownership is the proxy for cell phone usage. Bleah.

  • ||

    Incidentally, as found in the working paper, this sort of statement...

    Mobile phone ownership is associated with more traffic fatalities, but only in bad weather or wet road conditions. Mobile phone ownership has no statistically significant effect on fatalities in good weather or dry road conditions... Because a small share of fatalities occur in bad weather or wet road conditions, the effect on mobile phone ownership on fatalities in these conditions are masked when fatalities are examined in aggregate.



    ...should always be suspect.

    "There isn't a detectable effect in toto. But if we divide the data into small enough subsets, maybe one of them will show an effect that we can rationalize as having been caused by [insert vilified thing here]."

    By the way, that 2007 working paper has been downloaded from the Social Science Research Network 61 times. Three of those are due to me. Somehow I doubt the other 58 are due to members or staff of the state legislature.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Since it isn't that clear cut, I don't think it passes the test of both reasonableness and the test of necessity that warrants forceful legislation. I would like to decide which calls I take and how I take them.

    Thanks for the well thought out answer.

    Just an immediate impression before I head home.

    It seems that you are calculating the risk/cost to yourself when you take that call, but in doing so you are removing the ability of others on the road to control their risk.

    You are, in effect, making the risk/cost decision for others without their consent...because the benefits of taking the call only accrue to you, but the risks accrue to everyone nearby on the road.

    No?

    I'll have to think about it some more.

  • ||

    You are, in effect, making the risk/cost decision for others without their consent...because the benefits of taking the call only accrue to you, but the risks accrue to everyone nearby on the road.

    That is true. That's why it's in the ballpark of reasonable. If it were something whose costs were completely internalized, I would hope for massive evidence before state intervention. Think seat belt laws. I am against them for morality and slippery slope reasons, but also because the costs are almost totally internalized. Nonetheless, the evidence for their benefits is overwhelming.

    So, yes, while yapping on the phone puts most of the safety costs on me, it's probably not largely most. If a real public bad effect can be proved and tested, then a law may be warranted.

    I can pick out cell phone using drivers easily. If someone is driving slowly and overcautiously, yet inattentively, they are probably on a cell phone. And that very driving behavior also appears to provide some protection from accidents. They put big cushions around themselves, and others can recognize their behavior and avoid them.

    Frankly, the law should not be directed against hand-held cell phones, but against distracted driving itself. ...especially since no one has yet invented the hands-free Big Mac.

  • Your Wonderland of Knowledge||

    Thanks for the update to this post. I never would have guessed that most people would take the commonsense solution of hanging up as they approached a checkpoint.

    Also, I'd like to thank Radley Balko for just whining about this issue rather than doing as I would do and following the money.

    If anyone knows of anyone actually, you know, doing some real reporting on this issue please leave a link.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    you'd think most people would have the common sense to hang up as they approach.

    You'd think so, but just last week on the freeway outside of Phoenix I ran across a big sign that said: PHOTO ENFORCEMENT ZONE. I got right off the gas and downshifted. Sure enough, right on the side of the road, looking strange as can be, was a cop car, bristling with camera equipment. And, sure enough, some dork got tired of following me and zipped around, passing me at about 85 just in time to say CHEESE for the nice police man.

  • ||

    you'd think most people would have the common sense to hang up as they approach.

    You'd also think that most people would have the common sense to hang up while they are being helped at a store, or served in a restaurant, or watching a movie.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    dialing on a cell phone is when the danger occurs

    Correct. Except nobody dials a cell phone. :-) Isn't that cool? We still call that procedure "dialing the phone" even though nobody has dialed a telephone in 25 years. We still call it a "dashboard" as well. And a "glove box". And we call it "driving" even though we're not handling a team of horses (or oxen). And it's still the "trunk" even though it hasn't been a real trunk since the 1936 La Salle.

    Oh man, I love this stuff.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    I've long been a hands free guy. Sheesh, I can't even reach over to punch the radio button without the car automatically steering that direction. But worse, talking on the cell phone the old fashioned way sets my ear on fire. Not to mention that after a few minutes my shoulder locks into place and feels like somebody just stuck a dull knitting needle half way into the rotator cuff.

  • robc||

    We still call that procedure "dialing the phone" even though nobody has dialed a telephone in 25 years.

    My parents added on to their house, expanding their kitchen and adding a new room, in the process the wall with their phone, A ROTARY PHONE, was removed, and they had to replace the phone. That was this millenium.

  • ||

    If they're going to ban hand-held cell-phone chatting while driving, shouldn't they ban mascara-application while using the rear-view mirror as your vanity? Or how about banning driving with your left foot on the window sill? Or driving while shaving? Or driving while turning around to yell at your three year-old?

    This is so stupid. If someone causes an accident because they're multi-tasking, why not just tack on an "aggravated" for it? It seems that Reckless Driving should pretty much cover it.

  • Invisible Finger||

    If someone causes an accident because they're multi-tasking, why not just tack on an "aggravated" for it? It seems that Reckless Driving should pretty much cover it.

    The whole idea is to make money even when nothing bad happens. Get with the pogrom.

  • ||

    Oh yes! Right, right! So sorry.

    "get with the pogrom"... nice one :)

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