Late in July, the ARRL wrote a letter to the National Safety Council regarding the operation of amateur radio while mobile. Joel Harrison, W5ZN, president of the ARRL wrote lobbied (lets not kid ourselves, that what the ARRL does) the NSC to help them ensure that Amateur Radio is not caught up in no-cell-phones-while-driving laws by waving the bloody shirt of public service.
Amateur radio operators provide essential emergency communications when regular communications channels are disrupted by disaster. Through formal agreements with federal agencies… Amateur Radio volunteers protect lives using their own equipment without compensation. The ability of Hams to communicate and help protect the lives of those in danger would be seriously hindered if… governments do not ensure that Amateur Radio operators can continue the use of their mobile radios while on the road.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I use my FT-7800 in my car on an almost daily basis. I am by no means innocent and I did write my representatives when Massachusetts tried to pass a cell phone ban in 2008. It’s my hobby, I enjoy it, and in the car is the only time I get the “play radio” for the most part. I enjoy talking to my friends via it. I try to be responsible, however, I think that if anyone tells you that they are 100% concentrated on driving while they are playing radio, they’re a bold-faced liar.
President Janet Froetscher of the NSC’s response is very political and does a great job at walking right down the middle by giving a response without giving a response. While everyone is touting the NSC’s statement saying that “NSC does not support legislative bans or prohibition on [amateur radio] use” and counting it as a victory, however, the letter from the NSC says some very different things:
We are not aware of evidence that using amateur radios while driving has significant crash risks. We also have no evidence that using two-way radios while driving poses significant crash risks. Until such a time as compelling, peer-reviewed scientific research is presented that denotes significant risks associated with the use of amatuer radios, two-way radios or other communication devices, the NSC does not support legislative bans or prohibition on their use.
Sounds like we’re in the clear, right? Well, kind of. Indeed, there is no evidence that using two-way radios while driving poses significant crash risks, but what evidence are we citing that shows there isn’t a link? From the ARRL policy statement on mobile operation:
is aware of no evidence that [mobile] operation contributes to driver inattention. Quite the contrary: Radio amateurs are public service-minded individuals who
utilize their radio-equipped motor vehicles to assist others, and they are focused on driving in the execution of that function.
Hmmm… That doesn’t sound like compelling, peer-reviewed scientific research to me. What did the ARRL present in their letter to the NSC?
As ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner has observed based on more than 40 years of experience, “Simplex, two-way radio operation is simply different than duplex, cell phone use. Two-way radio operation in moving vehicles has been going on for decades without highway safety being an issue. The fact that cell phones have come along does not change that.”
This is, by definition, anecdotal evidence. Plus, would you really trust this if the National Association for Juggling president state that, after 40 years of experience, he observed that juggling is completely different from cell phone use and has been going on for decades without highway safety being an issue? I wouldn’t and neither should you. When I read this back in August, I did find this a bit amusing as the first thing that popped into my head is the final scene in the movie Thank You for Smoking. The protagonist, who used to lobby for the Tobacco industry, is talking to clients in a meeting regarding cell phone usage:
Gentlemen, practice these words in front of the mirror: Although we are constantly exploring the subject, currently there is no direct evidence that links cellphone usage to brain cancer.
Amateur Radio is in the same position. There is currently no direct evidence that links mobile operation with accidents. The kicker is that there is no evidence that mobile operation is safe either. From what I can tell, there have been no studies regarding the issue. I think that if the ARRL was really interested in safety concerns, they would commission a third party study on this. However, like any special interest group (again, this is exactly what they are and I have no problem with it) their primary interest is promoting their interests.
Froetscher also made a statement to the ARRL that I have not seen mentioned in any coverage of the letter either:
I appreciate your focus on the use of amateur radios for emergency communications during disasters. I encourage ARRL to adopt best practices for the safe operation of vehicles that confines use of amateur radios while driving only to disaster emergencies. You may want to consider documenting this through a formal policy for all of your members.
This is the political equivalent of the NSC saying “…and the horse you rode in on.” By the ARRL using Amateur Radio’s disaster communications as a shield to hide behind in order to avoid being banned under distracted driving laws, the NSC called them out on it. If we, as amateurs, “provide essential emergency communications when regular communications channels are disrupted by disaster”, why is the ARRL telling its members to avoid using their radios while mobile unless there is an emergency? While the obvious answer is “because we want to play radio” I don’t think the ARRL is going to say that. So, instead, since the ARRL is touting the response, I look forward to them working with the NSC to re-draft their policy to limit mobile Amateur Radio use to only emergency and disaster situations.