Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Evolution of Safety Margins

The NY Times reports on research in Australia that purports to show that the use of hands-free cellphone devices while driving is as unsafe -- in terms of the statistical likelihood of an accident -- as speaking on a regular cell-phone. At first sight, the results might seem counter-intuitive, given that using a cell-phone uses up one whole hand and probably a few more brain cycles as well. Ananthan's explanation of the numbers is that people simply tend to multi-task even more when using the hands-free device. Now that both hands are free, I can drive and talk on my phone while simultaneously reaching for my cup of coffee with one of my free hands!

The introduction of safer means of carrying out tasks already perceived to be relatively safe rarely has the effect of improving overall safety. For example, the invention of better brakes or a fancy new computer-assisted collision-avoidance system would simply mean that people will tailgate the car ahead of them even more closely than they already did, retaining the same probability of error.

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