But Sometimes We Do Need a Nanny

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William Teach is none too happy about the NSTB’s desire to ban cellphones from the roads:

(Washington Post) The National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that all states and the District ban cellphone use behind the wheel, becoming the first federal agency to call for an outright prohibition on telephone conversations while driving.

Distracted driving, some of it due to cellphone use, contributed to an estimated 3,092 deaths in highway crashes last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So, only some of the deaths can be attributed to distracted driving. We should ban looking at scenery, since that is dangerous. And passengers. Listening to the radio. Drinking coffee. Eating. Brushing hair. Putting on makeup. Those mirrors that allow parents to look in the back. Kids. Oh, and CAFE standards, which increase the risk of death on the road.

I’m usually sympathetic to concerns about government intrusion, but this is one of those areas where government does have same rationale for interference.  The libertarian argument against government interference in our personal affairs usually comes down to opposing efforts to regulate actions that do not harm others.  But in the case of distracted driving one’s actions do in fact affect others.  People generally don’t have accidents only with themselves.  Oh, sure, people run off the road and slam into trees, but more often they slam into other, innocent drivers.  So actions which do put other people’s lives at risk merit some kind of regulation, right?

There are a couple of practical objections to the ban.  First of all, is this really worthy of federal oversight?  One can perhaps argue that interstates are subject to the commerce clause, but this ban would apply to non-interstate driving.  Allowing the federal government to impose a mandate on the states through the threat of withholding highway funds is a pretty nasty trick and I think a clear example of overreach.

Even looking at it as a state issue this proposal poses concerns.  Last night I heard some commentators actually suggest that cell phones be disabled as soon as the car starts.  Aside from the technological issues surrounding the idea, it’s a pretty absurd idea considering that in the age of smart phones cellphones are multi-functional and are used for a variety of purposes.  Even if the NTSB isn’t as ambitious in its proposal, there are still problems with a cellphone talking ban.  It isn’t quite unenforceable – after all, we can pretty clearly tell whether a driver is talking on his phone or not.  But it does require cops to take on an additional monitoring function that could be a waste of resources.

Now, opponents of cellphone bans often bring up other types of distracted driving.  I’ve often dismissed these as red herrings.  Talking on the phone does distract our focus away from driving that I don’t think these other activities do.  That being said, it points to the basic flaw in a cellphone ban.  It’s an attempt to regulate an obnoxious behavior.  Look, I’ve been stuck in endless traffic that was a result of rubbernecking.  I once was stuck in traffic in Atlanta on the way to the airport for half an hour because there was an accident on an overpass.  At these times I wish there were television monitors capturing the prime offenders on tape, resulting in said drivers being banned from driving for life. Similarly, anytime I get behind a slow driver or someone weaving I just know that they’re yapping on a phone, and most times I’m proved right.  But does our annoyance with obnoxious driving behavior merit regulation?

As stated above, this particular obnoxious behavior can be life threatening.  I don’t think wanting to regulate this particular action crosses the threshold into an overbearing nanny state.  But if we’re truly honest, it’s probably ultimately nothing more than an effort to make us feel like we’re doing something to stop something that, in reality, we can’t do anything about.  As we all know, every other driver on the road is a moron, and we haven’t banned idiocy.


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  1. I take issue with the inclusion of bluetooth hands free devices, especially since voice recognition software comes with it. I really don’t see the difference between that and chatting with passengers.

  2. A total ban, including the use of hand free devices, strikes me as fairly wrong headed. Talking on the phone doesn’t strike me as more distracting than a lot of other activities which are unlikely to be banned. Heck, occasionally when I have to be driving really late at night and I’m sleepy I’ll call someone on the West Coast and talk while I drive just to keep myself awake — kind of like having your passenger talk to you to keep you alert.

    It seems like the big dangers probably center around holding a hand set to your head (which some people are pretty bad at, though others have no problem) and even more so with dialing/looking up numbers. (Not to mention the bozos who try to text or email and drive.)

    Probably the most dangerous thing I’ve been known to do with an electronic device while driving is also the most useful: looking at the map on the iPad or iPhone. Though even that is probably less dangerous than what I used to do: have a paper map set on the passenger seat where I could look over at it.

  3. William Teach takes a bright line rule approach which some hard libertarians take. According to them we should allow everything and award monetary damages for when things go wrong. According to them, the risk of a lawsuit should prevent rational people from taking irrational risks. Of course, in reality people don’t always act rationally. And more practically, people can cause damage beyond their net worth. So I think a more reasonable approach is to debate where we should draw the line. If the average citizen is rational, the democratic process should be able to sort this out.

  4. I assume, without much statistical evidence, that the kind of people who get into wrecks due to cell phone use are also the ones who would tend to lose focus due to: passenger discussions, food, the radio, random zoning etc.

    Despite greater numbers of vehicles on the road in the past 10 years

    1999 209,509,161
    2000 213,299,313
    2001 216,682,936
    2002 221,027,121
    2003 225,882,103
    2004 232,167,136
    2005 239,384,168
    2006 244,642,610
    2007 248,700,997
    2008 249,812,723
    2009 248,418,02

    (Source: NADA)

    the fatal accident rate has been dropping, see here:


    and accidents overall, I would argue (though without time to do the research), has also been dropping.

    The problem is, of course, that there is no way to know whether cell phone talkers would otherwise have crashed if not for the cell phones.

    Several jurisdictions have enacted similar bans, but the data appears to be questionable as to whether they reduce crashes: http://www.iihs.org/news/rss/pr012910.html.

  5. The National Transportation Safety Board is a standing commission of inquiry, not a regulatory agency. They can ban nothing. The relevant agency is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    I do not see that such a regulation would be any more or less difficult to enforce than any other traffic regulation (think of seat-belt laws), or that a ban on long-haul interstate highways or U.S. Routes would constitute jurisdictional imperialism. The trouble is that there is no federal highway patrol and no body of federal hearing examiners to hear traffice cases. You would have to erect the latter and deputize state highway patrols to issue federal citations (a task with which state police may or may not wish to co-operate).

  6. I agree with you here.

    As far as cell phones being covered under other inattentive driving laws, there is another, easier argument. If cell phones shouldn’t be banned explicitly because their conduct is governed under existing law, then there should be no stop lights or stop signs, because conduct at intersections is already governed.

  7. Jonathan, I suspect the fall in fatal accidents is due primarily to safer cars, more air travel, tougher traffic laws, and an aging population (a larger percentage of drivers are probably of peak driving skill age than in the past).

  8. RR,

    Perhaps so! That data is susceptible to multiple interpretations. However, aging drivers (depending on how you define it) can be as dangerous as younger –

    “Fatality rates for drivers begin to climb after age 65, according to a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, based on data from 1999-2004. From ages 75 to 84, the rate of about three deaths per 100 million miles driven is equal to the death rate of teenage drivers. For drivers 85 and older, the fatality rate skyrockets to nearly four times higher than that for teens.

    The numbers are particularly daunting at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 9.6 million people 85 and older by 2030, up 73% from today. Road safety analysts predict that by 2030, when all baby boomers are at least 65, they will be responsible for 25% of all fatal crashes. In 2005, 11% of fatal crashes involved drivers that old.” Source – http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-05-02-older-drivers-usat1a_N.htm

    I think, however, the most problematic statistics for those in favor of laws are those I cited at the end, where at least one study has shown that bans in various types have no real effect on crashes.

  9. Isn’t distracted driving against the law already? Like Paul’s example of seeing the driver weaving: if the guy is on the phone, that explains the bad driving, but even if he’s not, he should be pulled over for crossing the yellow line.

    One other comment. I’ve seen people reprogram their GPS’s to, I don’t know, track incoming missiles or something, by the amount of time it took them. What are we going to do, outlaw GPS use while driving?

  10. Side note at the beginning: Donald or Paul Z., I wish one of you guys would do a blog entry about NRC Chairman Jackzo. You’ll see why. Please read on.

    There is a place for intelligent government regulation based on sound science. For example, when the uncontrolled use of a technology can adversely impact large populations over inter-state regions, then the Federal government does have an obligation to enact those measures needed to ensure public health and safety. Technologies such as coal-fired electrical generating stations that emit pollutants into the atmosphere, or nuclear power plants where an accident can have devastating consequences come to mind. These kinds of technologies have effects that cross state lines, and when uncontrolled (or unregulated) they can threatent public health and safety.

    Now whether or not this line of thinking applies to cell phone use in autmobiles can be debated. Unlike a coal-fired power plant whose pollution wafting across state lines, or a nuclear power plant undergoing a hypothetical (but improbable) uncontrolled release of radioactivity into the environment, a single automobile driver using a cell phone is unlikely to have a large adverse impact. After all, except in unusual circumstances, the crash is localized. On the other hand, because both cars and cell phones are so ubiquitous, and because their use does cross state lines, then maybe intelligent regulation is required at the Federal level to standardize requirements. I however never trust politicians or political appointees to make intelligent regulation.

    A case in point is the current Chairman of the US NRC, Gregory Jackzo, who is anti-nuclear power in sentiment and who used to work for Senator Harry Reid against the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository, and for Representative Ed Markey against the Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee nuclear power stations. Read this:


    I call your attention to pages 4 through 7. Four US NRC Commissioners – two Democrats and two Republicans – have written to the White House Chief of Staff about the abusive and bullying behavior of the Chairman whom Obama appointed. Indeed, The Hill news outlet reports that Commissioner Magwood described Jackzo’s behavior as follows:

    “One woman told me that she felt the chairman was actually irritated with someone else, but took it out on her…Another said she was angry at herself for being brought to tears in front of male colleagues. A third described how she couldn’t stop shaking after her experience. She sat, talking with her supervisor until she could calm down sufficiently to drive home.”

    The White House said Jackzo apologized, but if you or I had behaved this way, the companies we each work for would have bounced our buttocks so hard on the pavement outside our mutual facilities that our respective pelvic bones would have been broken. Yet this bullying, abusive behavior has happened again and again and again during the past few years after Jackzo’s appointment. He has treated scientists, engineers, technologists, etc., all equally – demeaning and nasty. And he is actually representative of the kinds of people in the current Administration who will make rules and regulations about cell phone use in cars.

    Yes, we need intelligent regulation based on sound science. But what we will get from the current Adminstration is bullies like Jackzo, and the only way to get rid of the little bullies like Jackzo is to get rid of the big bully, Obama.

  11. “On the other hand, because both cars and cell phones are so ubiquitous, and because their use does cross state lines, then maybe intelligent regulation is required at the Federal level to standardize requirements.”

    Why would be want to force standardization? I’m a big fan of model codes for voluntary standardization though. The federal government could regulate the interstate sale of cars and cell phones. E.g., require built-in hands free devices. Their use would be purely intrastate though.

  12. RR,

    I am not opposed to non-standard equipment that may require non-standard regulation. However, we did that in the nuclear industry (2, 3 and 4 loop Westinghouse PWRs, 2 loop CE and 2 loop B&W PWRs, GE BWR/1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 with Mark I, II or III containments, etc., ad nauseam) and frankly, the regulation is a mess. France standarized on a single PWR design and they are 70+% nuclear with the lowest electricity rates in Europe.

    There are values to standardization and yes, disadvantages, too, such as common mode failures. Again, it takes intelligent regulation based on sound science, and that includes cell phones and cars as well as nuclear power plants. My “beef” is that you won’t find “intelligent regulation based on sound science” in the Obama Administration, Chairman Jackzo being a case in point.

  13. Oh, sure, people run off the road and slam into trees, but more often they slam into other, innocent drivers. So actions which do put other people’s lives at risk merit some kind of regulation, right?

    we already have regulation on it – it’s called “lawsuits”. Adding another difficult to enforce regulation to the books that will be only sporadically enforced at best won’t make much more difference if the possibility of a $50,000 lawsuit doesn’t.

  14. If they can’t be bothered to enforce existing laws, why on earth would they enforce a new one? The same cop who’s passing me on the right while typing on his laptop is supposed to notice cellphone using drivers ahead of, oh, the guy on my left that’s turned around talking to his passenger? Or the moron smoking a doobie ahead of me?

    If cell phones shouldn’t be banned explicitly because their conduct is governed under existing law, then there should be no stop lights or stop signs, because conduct at intersections is already governed.

    That isn’t even close to the same situation– for starters, stop signs are government activity, not private.

  15. Paul P, like I said, I’m a fan of model codes for voluntary adoption but I think more is lost by mandatory standardization than is gained. Not in every case but it’s a slippery slope I’d like to avoid. The exception is laws protecting human rights since nobody should be allowed to opt-out of them.

    There are times it seems like standardization would be obviously beneficial but I find that often it’s hampered by intellectual property laws. I’m a computer geek so to use a computer example, Intel was prevented from implementing its Thunderbolt technology using USB ports because the USB Implementers Forum refused to license it for a competing technology. I don’t know anything about the nuclear industry but I suspect something similar hampers standardization there as well. I think we’re generally overprotective of IP but even if we scale it back, some of these barriers to standardization are unavoidable.

  16. That isn’t even close to the same situation– for starters, stop signs are government activity, not private.

    And your point? Or are you just trying to be cute?

  17. Twice recently, I have noticed young women driving while playing with their phones. One almost hit the bus I was riding, and another was clearly not paying attention while driving.

    I loathe text messaging like I loathe Communism, atheism and the mentality of their followers. How in the world did I survive growing up without one of those damned phones?
    What is so important to talk about that it cannot wait until the driver gets to his or her destination?

    I am no fan of those who quote movie lines as if it is some badge of esteemed knowledge, but (okay, call me a hypocrite) Arnold Schwarzenegger had a line in Terminator 2 when talking to the young John Connor: “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves.” This is what we do to ourselves when we dive into addictions – porn, overeating, alcohol, illegal drugs, selfishness, and included in the selfishness are those overbearing phones.

    I recently found a website that documented the history of the Bell System. My late grandfather was a lineman for Bell of Pennsylvania for several decades. Try mentioning the Bell System to anyone under 30 and imagine the look you would get.

  18. And your point? Or are you just trying to be cute?

    You SERIOUSLY can not see the difference between multiple laws on individual behavior and a government putting up signs to clarify the rules of the road? How on earth are they even close to the same? One is an additional law on general behavior whose express justification is redundant, the other is a sign that publicizes an existing law– they’re not even the same category.

  19. Determining whether people are obeying traffic signals or signs is very easy and makes for relatively fair enforcement.

    It’s comparatively hard to see whether someone in a car is using a phone — especially if they’re using a hands free device. So it would lead to comparatively spotty enforcement. (Expect a lot of complaints that it amounts to ticketing for “driving while black”, etc.)

    Also, it arguably would cause an awful lot of road chaos if most people did not obey traffic signs and lights, because it would totally screw up traffic flow. The vast majority of the time using a cell phone while driving doesn’t cause problems. But, that small percentage of the time when it does can be pretty bad.

    People tend to be a lot more unanimous on punishing behaviors that almost always cause problems as compared to problems that sometimes cause problems.

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