National Transportation Safety Board

But Sometimes We Do Need a Nanny

William Teach is none too happy about the NSTB’s desire to ban cellphones from the roads:

(Washington Post) The National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that all states and the District ban cellphone use behind the wheel, becoming the first federal agency to call for an outright prohibition on telephone conversations while driving.

Distracted driving, some of it due to cellphone use, contributed to an estimated 3,092 deaths in highway crashes last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So, only some of the deaths can be attributed to distracted driving. We should ban looking at scenery, since that is dangerous. And passengers. Listening to the radio. Drinking coffee. Eating. Brushing hair. Putting on makeup. Those mirrors that allow parents to look in the back. Kids. Oh, and CAFE standards, which increase the risk of death on the road.

I’m usually sympathetic to concerns about government intrusion, but this is one of those areas where government does have same rationale for interference.  The libertarian argument against government interference in our personal affairs usually comes down to opposing efforts to regulate actions that do not harm others.  But in the case of distracted driving one’s actions do in fact affect others.  People generally don’t have accidents only with themselves.  Oh, sure, people run off the road and slam into trees, but more often they slam into other, innocent drivers.  So actions which do put other people’s lives at risk merit some kind of regulation, right?

There are a couple of practical objections to the ban.  First of all, is this really worthy of federal oversight?  One can perhaps argue that interstates are subject to the commerce clause, but this ban would apply to non-interstate driving.  Allowing the federal government to impose a mandate on the states through the threat of withholding highway funds is a pretty nasty trick and I think a clear example of overreach.

Even looking at it as a state issue this proposal poses concerns.  Last night I heard some commentators actually suggest that cell phones be disabled as soon as the car starts.  Aside from the technological issues surrounding the idea, it’s a pretty absurd idea considering that in the age of smart phones cellphones are multi-functional and are used for a variety of purposes.  Even if the NTSB isn’t as ambitious in its proposal, there are still problems with a cellphone talking ban.  It isn’t quite unenforceable – after all, we can pretty clearly tell whether a driver is talking on his phone or not.  But it does require cops to take on an additional monitoring function that could be a waste of resources.

Now, opponents of cellphone bans often bring up other types of distracted driving.  I’ve often dismissed these as red herrings.  Talking on the phone does distract our focus away from driving that I don’t think these other activities do.  That being said, it points to the basic flaw in a cellphone ban.  It’s an attempt to regulate an obnoxious behavior.  Look, I’ve been stuck in endless traffic that was a result of rubbernecking.  I once was stuck in traffic in Atlanta on the way to the airport for half an hour because there was an accident on an overpass.  At these times I wish there were television monitors capturing the prime offenders on tape, resulting in said drivers being banned from driving for life. Similarly, anytime I get behind a slow driver or someone weaving I just know that they’re yapping on a phone, and most times I’m proved right.  But does our annoyance with obnoxious driving behavior merit regulation?

As stated above, this particular obnoxious behavior can be life threatening.  I don’t think wanting to regulate this particular action crosses the threshold into an overbearing nanny state.  But if we’re truly honest, it’s probably ultimately nothing more than an effort to make us feel like we’re doing something to stop something that, in reality, we can’t do anything about.  As we all know, every other driver on the road is a moron, and we haven’t banned idiocy.

Yet.

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