Commentary

Bad Idea of Cellphone-Driver Bans Could Go National

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called on Congress to enact a new law banning (quoting Reuters) “talking on a cellphone or texting while driving any type of vehicle on any road in the country.”

LaHood’s war on “distracted driving” has made headlines before, but this latest round marks a new escalation in federal intrusiveness:

  • Nationalizing local traffic laws. A federally prescribed traffic code imposes uniformity on a subject for which the optimal rule might well be different on a North Carolina country lane than in Los Angeles. That may be one reason the Constitution’s framers wisely excluded such authority from among the federal government’s enumerated powers.
     
  • Ignoring the evidence. Much legislation so far aimed at distracted driving hasn’t seemed to work well: for example, per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as quoted on NPR, “states with cellphone bans have seen no real decrease in accident rates,” and even bans on texting don’t seem to have had the intended effects, perhaps because furtive drivers begin lowering their gaze to a phone held below dashboard level, making the risk worse.
     
  • Stoking public alarm. The feds insist that driver distraction is “linked” to 3,000 fatalities a year; even if you accept that number as accurate, most of the cases arise from distractions other than phones. But the number itself is suspect: the feds blame a crash on distraction if a cellphone is so much as “in the presence of the driver at the time of the crash.” There’s seldom any real effort to reconcile the supposed epidemic of phone distraction with the reality of accident statistics, which show per-mile highway fatalities continuing to fall to all-time lows.
     
  • Ignoring safety advantages. The near-ubiquity of cellphones in vehicles bolsters societal safety in all sorts of ways. For example, it improves the chance that other drivers will call a wreck in to 911 speedily enough for rescuers to make a difference, and it cuts crime rates by multiplying the number of “eyes on the street” in immediate touch with authorities. Disturbingly, LaHood seemed to suggest that he wants to ban cellphones even for commercial drivers, who pioneered mobile communication and have been using it reasonably safely for decades.
     
  • One man’s obsession. In the past LaHood has spoken of mandating novel technologies which would disable drivers’ cellphones when the car was engaged. (What could go wrong?) Last month he proposed as a model for his intended cellphone crackdown the war on drunken driving — an unsettling parallel, since the trend in DUI law for years has been toward penalties that can prove ruinous to persons of ordinary means, such as mandatory jail time and vehicle forfeiture. Does he really propose to wage such a war on everyone who places a 10-second “Honey, I’m running late” call?

Yet when asked whether enforcement would also be aimed at those who engage in other distracting activities while driving, he said “he was not as concerned about people who eat, apply makeup or perform other distracting activities in cars because ‘not everyone does that.’”

Call it LaHood logic: reserving the harshest penalties for things everyone supposedly does. But of course the secretary knows that not “everyone” fiddles with their phone while driving. According to Washington radio station WTOP, he personally combats the problem while driving around the capital by honking his horn at drivers he sees holding devices to their ears.

Points out Mike Riggs at Reason magazine: “Which is more of a distraction while driving: holding a phone up to your ear, or having a stranger pull up behind/beside you and lay on the horn for no apparent reason?” Riggs also notes in a second Reason article that concern about driver distraction circa 1930 led to crusades in high places to ban the newly developed car radios, which, fortunately, was resisted by the motoring public.

If you ever needed a live, honking, out-of-control refutation of the notion that the federal government is the right place to develop local traffic laws, you’d have it in the person of Ray LaHood.

Walter Olson is senior fellow at the Cato Institute and has written frequently on FCPA.