Column: Statistics? We don't need no stinkin' statistics

Numbers show a variety of activities, not just phone calls and texting, distract drivers

City Council probably should have phoned a friend before shutting down cell phones while driving. Better yet, they probably should have phoned a statistician.

I'll be completely honest: I'm one of those people who will pick up the phone while driving. I don't make Facebook status updates while cruising down Stockton Hill Road, but I'll definitely shoot a text off while I'm waiting at a stop light. Now that I'm over the "driving fast is cool" age, I'm interested in self-preservation and driving safely whenever I can.

I'm definitely not the model for good driving, but if I use my phone (or do anything other than steer) while in the car, I always try to do it in the safest manner possible.

When I heard about this law, immediately I thought about the statistics surrounding "distracted driving," or rather the interpretation of the statistics we have on the subject so far. There are a few key issues I'm seeing when lawmakers and advocate groups use distracted driving statistics.

First, and arguably the most cardinal of sins when it comes to statistics, is causation versus correlation. The two are very different and must always be questioned when it comes to something like this cell phone law. Did the act of holding a phone to my ear cause my accident? And, if I had not had my phone up to my head, would the accident have occurred regardless? If I was on the phone during an accident that I was at fault for, it's reasonable to assume that the act of talking on my phone was the cause. That's not statistically sound, however, especially when the subject hasn't been studied extensively and when the two events may have just been correlated.

When I researched studies on distracted driving, what stood out to me was the overlapping of confidence intervals for most of these odds ratios. In layman's terms, when someone says "you're X times more likely to have an accident when you text and drive," that's a use of an odds ratio. A confidence interval is the range of values used to measure uncertainty. A smaller range with a 95 percent confidence interval is a sign that a given result is certain. A larger range, not so much.

Most of the studies I read have some huge confidence intervals that overlapped, and that there was a significant different between novice and experienced drivers. One of the latest ones was conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine and published in 2014. Here are the odds ratios for the risk of a crash or near crash for novice drivers and experienced drivers. Confidence intervals are noted with a "CI":

• Dialing a cell phone - Novice: 8.32, CI [2.83,24.42] / Experienced: 2.49, CI [1.38,4.54]

• Reaching for a cell phone - Novice: 7.04, CI[2.64,18.83] / Experienced: 1.37, CI [0.31,6.14]

• Talking on the phone - Novice: 0.61, CI[0.24,1.57] / Experienced: 0.76, CI [0.51,1.13]

• Sending or receiving text messages - Novice: 3.87, CI[1.92,9.25] / Experienced: not measured

• Looking at a roadside object - Novice: 3.90, CI[1.72,8.81] / Experienced: 0.67, CI [0.37,1.22]

• Eating - Novice: 2.99, CI[1.30,6.91] / Experienced: 1.26, CI [0.74,2.15]

• Adjusting the radio - Novice: 1.37, CI[0.72,2.61] / Experienced: 0.53, CI [0.30,0.94]

What stands out to me are the distinct differences between novice and experienced drivers, the huge confidence intervals for most of the cell phone odds ratios, and the exceptionally low odds ratio for talking on the phone. Talking on the phone has a lower odds ratio and a tighter confidence interval than eating in the car or looking at objects on the side of the road, and was on par with adjusting the radio. Even reaching for a cell phone is negligible in raising the risk of an accident, especially with experienced drivers.

Here's the kicker: the conclusion of the study was "the risk of a crash or a near-crash among novice drivers increased with the performance of many secondary tasks, including texting and dialing cell phones." Notice how the researchers included other secondary tasks and omitted experienced drivers from their conclusion.

I understand what the Council was getting at when they proposed this ordinance, and granted it's a very popular decision on their part. They want to save lives, and they want to follow suit like many other states and cities in the country. The problem is, lawmakers need to make laws based on data and research, not popularity or feelings. The fees are also incredibly punitive considering the flaws in the data they're using for justification.

If they're banning cell phones while driving, here's my list of what they should ban next to curb distracted driving under the same logic: fast food, dogs in laps, kids in cars, driving with one hand, passengers in cars, anyone under 25 driving a car, car radios, car AC and heating controls, GPS units, road signs, too many road signs on Stockton Hill Road, too many driveways on Stockton Hill Road, ban Stockton Hill Road altogether, the sun for shining in my eyes while driving, those quad-looking things that are loud and distract other drivers, golf carts, old people driving in general, daydreaming.

This is an ordinance that doesn't solve the issue, and is an inconvenience at best. It depends entirely on how the police enforce it, and I'm hoping they don't fine someone who checks their phone at a stoplight.