I see in the news that Transportation Secretary LaHood is proposing a nationwide ban on cell phone usage by drivers.
While I do recognize the serious safety hazard presented by cell phones, and while I realize this may be a case of 80% of users spoiling it for everyone else, I can’t help finding myself with a few hang-ups over this proposal, especially the proposal to ban hands-free phones.
In principle, of course, I agree completely with the idea that the driver of a vehicle should not be texting while the car is in motion. In fact enough people agree with the idea that many places have passed bans on texting while driving–except now we find research suggesting that the bans do little to reduce the number of accidents, as people just become sneakier about their texting, and therefore more dangerous when they do text.
It’s hard to imagine that a cell phone ban would be especially helpful. After all, we’ve got laws limiting speed, and everybody knows how well they’re observed. Moreover, a ban would (in theory) provide a needless restriction on times when cell phone usage, if not completely safe, would be no more distracting than any of the other gadgets that cars contained for decades. For example: quick calls for directions, or perhaps even longer conversations to relieve monotony where traffic is light and other conditions are favorable.
Granted, the notion of keeping one hand off the wheel for a protracted period is not entirely satisfying. A ban on hand-held phones could perhaps be reasonable (if no more effective than the texting ban).
But if we’re going to go all the way and ban the hands-free devices, what else should we be doing? Radio and CD player controls are an obvious hazard if used at an inopportune time (though that may be a tautology). Clearly we need either to take them out of the car completely or else move them to the passenger side of the compartment (and hope drivers don’t just decide to reach over). After all, it doesn’t matter if the passenger is manipulating the controls.
Oh, but wait: what if it’s the passenger that’s having a conversation with the driver? I’ve missed several turns due to that sort of distraction. We obviously need to remove the passenger from the front seat, and put him or her in the back…where the driver has to look in the rear-view mirror to make eye contact. Perhaps we’d better take the passenger out altogether. Looks like our transit-friendly transportation secretary may start advocating for single-occupant vehicles after all.
(And what about that rear-view mirror? It’s an obvious invitation to primp. We’d better take that out as well.)
Or what about driver fatigue? That’s certainly a hazard. Will private drivers, in their own vehicles, start having to keep logs like professional truck drivers do to make sure they aren’t spending too much time behind the wheel? What bureaucracy gets to regulate that–much less try to enforce it?
Am I getting a little silly? Possibly, but the point should be clear: you can’t force people to behave responsibly or legislate good judgment. The irresponsible will continue to act irresponsibly.
That’s not to say there’s nothing we can do. A well-aimed public service message campaign might do some good. It might be possible to limit the amount of spectrum available for cellular communications, thus limiting the supply and encouraging (through pricing) the reduction of cell phone usage in general.
Maybe the FCC could lean on Hollywood to get their TV and movie characters to lead by example.
So, to conclude: Yes, cell phone usage on the road is a menace; but knee-jerk, feel-good legislation can be a menace, too, creating additional obstacles and regulations without providing much relief to the original problem.