Commentary

Beware the Cellular Keystone Cops

By Adam D. Thierer
This essay appeared on National Review Online on May 10, 2001. Copyright 2001 National Review.
You may soon be ticketed for using a cell phone in your car. Hundreds of bills have been introduced in state and municipal legislatures across America in recent years that make talking on a cell phone while driving a crime. So far, few such bills have become law. But the U.S. House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing on the issue yesterday, and the anti-cell-phone nannies are lobbying hard.

With cell phone use exploding in recent years (more than 115 million wireless subscribers today), it is not surprising that these devices would cause some problems. But how big of a problem does cell phone use in cars pose? The results may surprise you.

The AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety has released the results of a new study in which the group analyzed 26,000 traffic accidents to determine what factors contributed to those accidents. Among the top causes were: outside objects, persons or events (19.7 percent of accidents surveyed); eating and drinking in the car (18.8 percent); adjusting the radio, cassette or CD player (11.4 percent); and distractions caused by other occupants in the vehicle (9.4 percent).

The less significant causes listed by the survey were: moving objects in the vehicle (3.2 percent); using or dialing on a cell phone (1.5 percent); using other devices in vehicle (1.4 percent); adjusting climate controls (1.2 percent); and smoking-related distractions (1.2 percent).

Compared to using a cell phone, it is 12 times more likely you will cause an accident by snacking in the car and eight times more likely you will cause an accident by playing with your car stereo. It would make more sense for policymakers to ban eating Big Macs and listening to Britney Spears in our cars than it would to ban cell phone use.

This is not to say, however, that using a cell phone while driving doesn’t pose some degree of risk. And this threat, critics argue, is likely to grow as cell phone use grows. But while new technologies often introduce new problems into society, still newer technologies typically come along to solve those problems.

For example, “hands-free” cellular devices, which employ an earpiece and a clip-on microphone, are on the market and widely used by motorists. One-button speed-dialing, an option on almost all phones, enables drivers to place calls without having to dial a series of numbers. And voice-activated calling is right around to corner. This will allow drivers to simply say “call home” and let the phone do the rest.

Imposing burdensome restrictions on cell phone use in cars is unnecessary and may cost lives by having the unintended consequence of discouraging drivers from carrying a cell phone in their car. With an estimated 118,000 emergency calls placed by cell phone users every day, the life-saving applications of cell phones are well established. If a ban were to discourage drivers from carrying phones in their cars, the costs would likely outweigh the benefits.

On a more practical note, it is difficult to understand how such a ban would be enforced. Where will policymakers draw the line? Since snacking behind the wheel and playing with your car stereo are more distracting and dangerous than cell phone use, should legislators ban those activities first? What about arguing with you spouse or kids in the car? Should that be policed? And what about the CB radios truckers still use?

There’s a simpler way to approach this problem from a public policy perspective: Don’t try to ban technologies (cell phones, radios, CBs, etc.) or specific activities (conversations, singing, smoking, etc.) inside the cabin of an automobile. Instead, simply enforce those laws already on the books dealing with reckless or negligent driving. If a driver is weaving in and out of traffic lanes, or posing a serious threat to others on the road for any reason, they should be pulled over and probably ticketed if the infraction is serious enough.

In conclusion, a degree of patience and humility is necessary by policymakers. It is impossible to legislate a 100 percent risk-free society into existence. Technology is solving a problem it created. Turning our nation’s law enforcement officers into a cellular SWAT team will only deter them from policing more dangerous activities while threatening to further erode our liberties.

Adam Thierer is director of telecommunications studies.