The Right To Use A Cell Phone And Drive

On December 13, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended “a nationwide ban on the use of cell phones and text messaging devices while driving.” The recommendation comes after a high-profile incident in my own state of Missouri where texting led to a crash that involved a tractor trailer and two buses. Now it’s not unusual for the government to want to increase regulation when something big and terrible happens; people generally expect their government to prevent big and terrible things from happening. But does this justify a nationwide cell phone ban? Let’s consider.

First, there is a valid case for such regulation. Some libertarians might bash the NTSB’s call for a ban as regular old government power-grabbing, but there is a legitimate negative externality here. You could be driving down the road, minding your own business and following all traffic laws, and a distracted cell-phone-wielding driver could plow right into you. Few people seem to have issues with drunk driving laws; why wouldn’t you want to be protected from the negative externality of someone crashing into you?

Well, when we discuss whether or not the government should get involved in trying to prevent a negative externality, there are two things we should consider. Is the negative externality big enough to worry about, and is the government likely to make it better? I believe the answer to both questions is NO with about a 90% certainty.

Cell phone use is up enormously in the last decade. According to USAToday, America now has more cell phones than vehicles. Additionally, despite most people considering cell phones and driving to be an “unsafe” mix, “77% reported answering calls while driving, and 41% said they made calls.” If cell phones are so bad for drivers, and drivers are using them in record amounts, shouldn’t we see this in the data?

I saw news headlines last week that New York City in 2011 was expected to break a record for the number of traffic fatalities – not for so many deaths, but for so few. I heard on the radio that the state of Illinois was expected to reach a record low number of road deaths in 2011: “This year and the last two represent the only three years that Illinois’ highway fatality count will come in under 1,000 since 1921.” (That’s pretty astonishing considering that the number of Illinois drivers in the last three years must be much larger than it was for much of the twentieth century, nevermind the number of drivers with cell phones!) I haven’t found good updated national data yet, but a government source that goes through 2009 shows declining rates of fatalities by multiple metrics.

I hesitate to read too much into these statistics, as there are certainly many factors that contribute to them.While U.S. population is still increasing, albeit at a somewhat slower pace, the number of miles driven has declined somewhat since the recession, so there are fewer opportunities for crashes. Political leaders and law enforcement are always ready to take credit for contributing to the decline. Cars are safer than the used to be, and the data I presented above only looks at fatalities, not accidents. It’s possible that accidents have not declined but there are simply fewer fatalities per accidents, and that things like cell phones could still be causing lots of accidents.

Still, it remains factual that the United States has millions more citizens using cell phones while driving than ever before, and yet traffic fatalities are still going down. It reminds me of the brain cancer debate – I’m not smart enough to peruse through the scientific claims of both sides and reach an intelligent conclusion, but the simple fact that cell phone use has skyrocketed and brain cancer has not skyrocketed seems to put at least a gaping hole in any theories about correlation.

Futhermore, there are other sources of distracted driving that no one seems to be calling to ban (unlike alcohol, which is much more obviously dangerous) even though they could be just as much of a negative externality as cell phone usage. As the USAToday article notes,

Supporters of a ban — nine states have already enacted one — cite the 3,092 people who died last year in crashes caused by distracted driving. But that’s misleading. Only a small portion — 13%, to be exact — involved calling or texting on cellphones. The vast majority involved other distractions, including things such as rowdy toddlers or pets, eating in the car, or rubbernecking at roadside accidents. Is it time to ban food in cars? Dogs? Children? Where do you draw the line?

I don’t have any data, but it seems rather obvious to me that many of these other distractions would completely fail the test of the two questions I posed above. We don’t have a national crisis of accidents caused by fast food or children, and such bans would be completely unenforceable. (How could a policeman pull you over for suspicion of chewing?)

But even if cell phone use isn’t a national crisis, either, if it’s still somewhat dangerous, should we consider banning it? Well, I don’t believe it would be any easier to enforce than some of those other distractions. Some suggest that addicted drivers might simply hide their phones in their laps instead of next to their steering wheel, making their behavior even more dangerous. Besides, I think the technology is changing too fast for Congress to regulate, anyway. The capabilities of hands-free devices are increasing, as well as their integration with vehicles. The NTSB doesn’t seem to have a problem with GPS navigators, but what if you use your phone for GPS? Would that still be OK under a ban? (Only if your phone manufacturer has the right lobbyists?) And what if driverless car technology takes off in the next decade? Who’s going to define the term “driver” and “passenger” for these laws if no one is even considering the possibility of one person easily switching between them?

Let’s return to the original texting 19-year-old truck driver that sparked this latest debate. Popular Mechanics reports that “texting while driving is already illegal in Missouri for drivers under 21.” Furthermore, the NTSB reported that the driver was following too closely to the vehicle ahead “due to excessive focus on a motorcoach parked on the shoulder of the road.” In other words, “it was just the old-fashioned kind of driver inattention that has caused most accidents since the beginning of the automobile age.” Only the government can respond to someone breaking an existing law with a suggestion that we need more laws for these people to break. As USAToday says, “Laws that are unenforceable (see: Prohibition) do not increase respect for the law or change attitudes.”

So I don’t think the government needs to get involved in banning the use of cell phones while driving. I don’t think state governments should be banning them, but I definitely don’t think the federal government should cover us all with such a mandate. The problem does not seem to be any greater than many other forms of distracted driving that have existed for decades, and the problem does not seem like it would be any easier to enforce than those other distractions, either. There’s a legitimate negative externality involved, so I’m open to claims that I’ve misrepresented the data or that I’m missing some key insights, but for now I’m staking a claim that this is another area that should not be tainted by the federal government, and I hope they stay out of it.

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