Texting Bans, and Measuring the Correct Things

So, statistics show that, despite the increasing number of bans on cell phone use, or texting while driving, the number of traffic accidents hasn’t gone down. I’m not at all surprised.

Now, mind you, it’s probably too early to really tell whether there will be any long-term drop as a result of these bans, and I’m not about to argue that anyone should be texting and driving, it’s actually a pretty stupid thing to do, but I do believe all of the bans in the world won’t actually change the traffic statistics much. The reason for that is actually very simple, and it applies in many situations we’ve talked about here.

One of the common misconceptions about any statistic, is just because there is a relationship between two things, does not mean there is causation. Yes, there are far more traffic accidents involving drivers on cell phones (talking or texting) than there used to be. There are far more cell phones than there used to be. That is a causal relationship. But, there hasn’t been a large uptick in the overall number of accidents, which we can assume to mean that the increase in the number of cell phones did not make more for an increase in the number of bad drivers, thus the number of accidents didn’t really change. What changed was the likelihood that one of those bad drivers was using a cell phone as the tool of distraction. That increased, however banning these drivers from using a cell phone won’t make them good drivers suddenly, any more than having a cell phone made them bad drivers. The total number of crashes has remained pretty steady, thus we can say pretty safely that the amount of dangerous driving going on out on the streets has remained pretty steady as well. It just happens that more of those dangerous driving occurrences, involve a cell phone. Banning cell phones while driving will result in a drop in the number of crashes involving a cell phone eventually, but bad drivers will still be bad drivers. They’ll still cause accidents, apparently in similar numbers as they do now.

It actually reminds me of the argument I’ve made here many times against blocking social networking sites in the workplace. Wasting time in the workplace did not start with the invention of Facebook. There’s always been a certain number of unproductive workers, they just happen to be spending more time on Facebook than they used to. If you remove Facebook, it will not suddenly make them productive workers. Those are not the only two choices, Facebook users, or productive workers.

If your goal is to increase the productivity of your workers, simply measuring the time they spend on Facebook won’t tell you anything. We can all agree on that, right? If you measure the amount of time spent on Facebook, you’ll get people who don’t go to Facebook, not productivity.  Yet, I see examples of this all the time. We measure the effectiveness of tech support folks by the number of tickets they close, or we measure sales and customer service reps by the number of calls they take during a day. That assures us that we’ll have people who close tickets, or end phone calls quickly, not people who are solving real problems. You’ll get what you measure, and if you’re measuring something that actually does not have a causal relationship to your bottom line, you won’t impact that bottom line.

In the Litigation Support world, if you measure the number of documents reviewed, you will get fast reviews, but you might not get any accuracy. If you want accuracy, you have to measure it.

Of course, I believe cell phone and texting while driving bans actually do accomplish what they set out to do. Politicians saw a problem with accidents involving people on their cell phones, and being politicians, set out to “do something” about it. In the long run, the bans will decrease the number of accidents involving cell phone use, but it won’t make better drivers. So, it will do something about the immediate problem, but it doesn’t make driving any safer. If the goal was to make driving safer, then we’re measuring the wrong thing. We would be measuring the number of bad drivers being educated and turned into good, safe, drivers if our goal is to make driving safer.

So, what are we measuring now that we shouldn’t be? What should we be measuring that we don’t?

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