Yesterday the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a full ban on the non-emergency use of cell phones while driving for all 50 states. Even though the NTSB has no authority to impose such a ban (it would have to be done by each state’s legislature), as you might suspect, I’d argue that this is a bad idea. Here’s why:
Laws banning drivers’ cell phone use are ineffective and unenforceable. A couple years ago, the legislature here in Georgia enacted a ban on texting while driving. Since the ban here became law, I’ve watched closely and have noticed no noticeable decrease in the number of drivers I see typing on their phones while driving and while sitting at traffic lights.
Unless a police officer is directly beside a car, he can’t see what the driver is doing while looking down. And even if the officer does see the driver typing on a cell phone, the driver can claim he was using it as a GPS device (which is excluded in the Georgia law).
Laws banning cell phone use can actually have adverse effects on accident rates. Studies like this one show where laws like these have a negative impact on accident rates. The logic is simple: either drivers hold their phones lower in the car to avoid being seen, further distracting them from things happening on the road in front of them, or – as has already been mentioned – the laws are ineffective.
Cell phones don’t cause accidents; distracted drivers cause accidents. The problem is distracted driving, not cell phone usage. We can’t legislate to keep drivers from being distracted because we would never successfully identify all the things that distract drivers.
Should we also ban the use of iPods, radio, adjusting the car’s air conditioner, or talking to the person in the passenger seat? What about applying makeup, scolding unruly children in the back seat, or passing out fast food dinners on the way to soccer practice?
What about those external distractions completely out of the driver’s control? The red 1965 Mustang convertible in the other lane, the cute girl running down the sidewalk, the retail signs designed to get drivers’ attention, the kid in the car in the next lane making faces at people…the list never ends.
The goal in this well-intentioned idea is simple: reduce the number of accidents. So the issue here changes from a problem of identifying distractions to a problem of improving driver awareness. The best way to do that – I’m sure you’ve heard me say it before – personal responsibility. When people are personally responsible for their actions and for the damage they cause, they become more careful about what they’re doing.
We need to get away from this approach of government protecting people from themselves and return to taking responsibility for our own actions. Laws like these come from good intentions, but if we’re not free to make our own mistakes, we’re not free.