Just in time for holiday travel, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended banning the use of cell phones while driving. The news came when the NTSB completed its investigation of a tragic accident that occurred in Missouri in which two people died and another 38 were injured.
This provides the perfect narrative for what some might consider to be very compelling and policy-minded journalism: A tragedy has occurred and a cell phone was involved. Shouldn’t there be a law against that?
Consider this line from the New York Times’ series of articles on the subject: “With virtually every American owning a cellphone, distracted driving has become a threat on the nation’s roads.” Indeed, in September 2009, the newspaper wrote that it was time to crack down, saying that “…texting at the wheel is a national hazard that calls for a firm federal response.”
This weekend, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Matt Richtel, the author of several Times articles regarding the dangers of cell phone use while driving, discussing whether he considered himself to be an advocate. Richtel provided the standard journalist line, saying that he just thinks it is important to ask tough questions.
Well, here are two more.
1. Traffic fatalities, crashes, accidents, etc. have declined dramatically. If driving is safer than ever, why is there such concern?
The argument I hear again and again (most recently when I sat in on Donnybrook) is that banning cell phones while driving is about safety. However, Missourinet reports that this year, traffic fatalities are headed for a 62-year low. The same trend is seen on the national level. Fatality, injury, and crash rates have all declined substantially since 1990.
If fatalities, crashes, and injuries are down, then I hardly think that we are experiencing a “national hazard” that warrants an outright ban on cell phone use while driving. Of course, there have been accidents where cell phones were clearly the cause. However, with traffic accidents and fatalities down during the same time period that cell phones became popular, cell phone use is clearly not as dangerous as some fear.
And, even if an action comes with a small amount of risk, that does not mean we should pass a law to ban it. In fact, driving with children in the car may be more distracting than those pesky cell phones. Should we ban driving with children? Are we in the midst of a national driving-with-children epidemic?
2. How could this possibly be enforced? And, do we really want to create another vague reason to stop and question citizens?
How on earth could a ban on cell phone use be enforced? Would a police officer be able to pull you over if you look down briefly while driving? How could the officer discern whether you are talking on a hands-free phone or merely singing along to the radio?
The New York Times should know better than to advocate for additional vague ways for police to stop and question individuals. After all, the Times did an excellent study of a “stop, question, and frisk” policing policy. The newspaper found that after a drastic decline in violent crimes in New York City, the number of stops the police made increased dramatically.
Knowing that police officers can sometimes abuse their ability to stop, question, search, and detain individuals, why would anyone advocate for more vague reasons to stop and question people? Driving dangerously is already illegal. What more do cell phone ban advocates need?
Indeed, the last thing I want to see after the passage of federal legislation that allows for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil is another vague reason that police can use to stop and search citizens.
The solution is not to ban cell phones.
I do not condone texting while driving. I also am not a fan of eating while driving, or letting your adorable pet distract you while driving. Though it would make an excellent point and is legal, I do not recommend that you hold a banana to your ear and pretend to talk to it while driving.
I was in a nearly fatal car accident when my family first moved to Michigan. The culprit? Ice. Should driving in Michigan be banned from October through April? Obviously not. Instead, I support independent groups working to inform drivers about dangerous winter driving conditions. Similarly, efforts to educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving may end up saving lives.
But an outright ban? It is an overreaction to a tragedy.