Commentary

Here Come the Federal Cell Phone Cops

By Adam D. Thierer
June 25, 2001
Just when you thought there was nothing left for Congress to federalize, along comes a bill by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) that would regulate how Americans use their cell phones while driving. Apparently no human action is too small or parochial for the federal government to police. So now Congress wants to play the role of local traffic cop, too.

The bill goes by the acronym “CRASH Act”: “The Call Responsibly and Stay Healthy Act.” (Is anyone else a little tired of these silly bill names lawmakers invent to attract media coverage?) The CRASH Act would require that states impose restrictions on hand- held cell phone calling or risk losing a portion of their federal highway funds. This is also known as blackmail: “Do what the feds say or no taxpayer dough, got it?”

Congress might as well abolish state and local governments and set traffic and vehicle operation standards for the nation. In fact, the feds already impose rules on several things in your car, including the following: air bags, seat belts, tire safety, crash standards, gas mileage, emission limits, fuel taxes, drinking age requirements, and, until recently, the nationwide 55-mph speed limit. It goes without saying that all this activity is of dubious constitutionality, and a federal cell phone law stands on even shakier legal footing.

But state-level cell phone bans aren’t needed either. There are far more distracting activities inside a car—such as tinkering with your car stereo or arguing with a passenger—that we currently do not prohibit. A recent study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center analyzed more than 32,000 traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers to determine what factors contributed to those accidents. Among the top causes were: outside objects, persons or events (29.4 percent of accidents surveyed); adjusting the radio, cassette, or CD player (11.4 percent ); and other occupants of the vehicle (10.9 percent ).

The less significant causes were: moving objects in the vehicle (4.3 percent ); other objects or devices in vehicle (2.9 percent ); adjusting vehicle / climate controls (2.8 percent ); eating and drinking in the car (1.7 percent ); using or dialing on a cell phone (1.5 percent ); and smoking-related distractions (0.9 percent ).

Cell phone bans might also have unintended consequences. For example, Rep. Ackerman’s bill would force drivers either to use a hands-free device or to pull off to the side of the road to make a call. Such a prohibition already exists in Suffolk County, N.Y., which is partially within Ackerman’s congressional district. Tragically, a few days after Ackerman introduced his federal mandate, a driver in Suffolk County pulled over to the side of the road to comply with the law and was struck by a delivery truck and killed. With the nation’s highways growing increasingly congested, mandating that drivers pull over to make a call would only exacerbate traffic congestion and simultaneously place drivers at risk.

So if cell phone bans aren’t the answer, what are concerned policy makers to do? Instead of banning specific activities inside vehicles, the better solution would be to enforce existing laws against reckless or negligent driving. If drivers are weaving in and out of traffic and posing a risk to others, they should be pulled over and ticketed, regardless of why they are doing so.

Finally, technology is helping solve a problem it created. “Hands-free” devices, one-touch speed dialing, “on- board” navigation devices, and voice-activated calling systems are enabling drivers to live by the old “10 & 2” rule and keep both hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Policymakers should be patient and let technology solve this problem for them. In the meantime, federal lawmakers should get out of the business of telling us what to do in our cars.

Adam D. Thierer is the director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.