Is It Really Practical to Ban All Talking While Driving?

by on October 9, 2010 · 2 comments

Distracted driving is a serious problem. When you’re flying down the road at speed maneuvering a 2-ton piece of machinery, you need to be paying attention to the road to keep yourself, and others around you, safe.  Distractions of any sort can be dangerous and undercut the driver’s ability to stay focused.  And it’s certainly true that digital devices can be among the biggest distractions. But I think we have to ask some practical questions about just how far law can and should go to minimize that distraction.

I raise this issue because, according to this Bloomberg article yesterday, “U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he believes motorists are distracted by any use of mobile phones while driving, including hands-free calls, as his department begins research that may lead him to push for a ban.”  Sec. LaHood believes that even hands-free phone conversations are a “cognitive distraction” and should be prohibited.  Also, “his concerns extend to vehicle information and entertainment systems such as Ford Motor Co.’s Sync and General Motors Co.’s OnStar,” which means that almost every conceivable in-vehicle technology could be regulated under LaHood’s scheme.

To be clear, I’m not necessarily opposed to laws addressing talking on phones or texting while driving since those actions can have dangerous consequences. But I’ve always preferred a more generic enforcement strategy when it comes to distracted driving laws.  As I noted in my old 2007 essay, “Banning In-Car Technologies Won’t Work,” to the extent law enforcement needs to be brought into the picture it should be done in a technology-agnostic or activity-agnostic fashion. I went on to argue:

Instead of trying to ban technologies (cell phones, radios, MP3 players, navigation devices, etc.) or specific activities (conversations, singing, smoking, etc.) inside the cabin of an automobile, police officers should 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.  For starters, I’d like to see some of those stupid idiots I see eating while driving, or worse yet, putting on make-up behind the wheel, pulled over and ticketed when they are driving erratically. But the same goes for anyone who is operating a vehicle in a dangerous fashion. Again, enforce basic traffic safety rules and focus on educating drivers about vehicle safety. Don’t ban new technologies.

That’s still where I stand on this issue.  Moreover, I keep coming back to the practicality of the sort of sweeping technology bans that Sec. LaHood and others advocate.  I just don’t think it’s possible to eliminate all these devices and activities from cars, at least not with creating an Auto Police State, and a huge headache for law enforcement officers to boot.  Even if you banned integration at the factory of in-vehicle technologies, plenty of people would find after-market alternatives.  And you just can’t stop people from lugging their digital devices around with them wherever they go.

Thus, to reiterate, the better solution here is to:

  1. Continue to make those technologies more road-friendly by integrating in more safety features. As I noted in this CNBC interview earlier this year, Ford’s new systems, for example, have some very impressive voice-activated features. And others are following suit.
  2. Educate drivers about safer vehicle operation & proper technology use.  For more on that, see Berin Szoka’s excellent post, “Texting While Driving: Regulate or Empower & Educate?”
  3. Apply stiffer fines to erratic driving infractions. Again, if a driver is posing a threat others on the road for any reason, they should be penalized for that behavior.

I want to raise a final proposal. If Sec. LaHood and others are serious about minimizing distracting in-vehicle conversations, then I would ask them to find to a solution to the greatest threat to driver safety: nagging spouses and poorly-behaved children!  Seriously, there is no greater “cognitive distraction” to a driver than family fights and bad kids.

  • Again, who do you think?

    Ok… Let's see if I can tear this one down a bit. I agree with your objective, but I'll point out its more than slight flaws.

    1 – You mention the fact that these are old arguments… But let's backtrack slightly and hit the obvious ones… Radio, 8-Track (don't forget THAT beauty!), Tape, CD, MP3… The point is that this is NOT a new debate. It was, and continues to be, the same song and dance each time. I agree with you that there should not be this knee-jerk reaction to regulate or CONTROL, but that's what folks in the nanny state want, right?

    2 – I'll skip to what you said about “Can't Stop” the user lugging and using their devices into their vehicles. I'll strenuously object to that. First DC has made a pretty solid impact on that point recently and I think that laid over Virginia's way of dealing with another problem would together be a very interesting and effective manner in which to STOP this challenge. I do NOT want it. BUT it would be very effective.

    A – DC is ticketing folks for driving “non-hands free”. Texting, talking, surfing, whatever. Doesn't matter. While they're chosen ticket spots don't vary too often, they are effective nonetheless. Think 14th & F during rush hour.

    B – VA? That's the nasty one. WAY back when people actually bought and used radar detectors as an after market solution, the glorious state of VIRGINIA used to LITERALLY allow their State Police to confiscate them whenever they saw someone with one in their car. It didn't matter if the detector was on or not. It didn't matter if the driver was speeding or not. Police see, police pull over, police take. UGH. Caveman enforcement at its finest.

    Combine those two and there you go. Quick, effective and VERY painful solution. Now I'm not advocating the permanent removal of the device from the ownership of the individual. BUT forcing a person to go to that particular police department, present a signed ticket, pay a hefty fine and only then receive their device back? Ouch! Especially after the first teen-aged angst session erupts in a high school. That would quickly work its magic. (Oh and with us old idiots blackberrying while cruising too!)

    c – Back to the meat of your proposal – Enforcement of the laws already on the books. Wow. That old song frankly…. Sucks.

    Here's why that NEVER works. Errantic driving is a purely subjective term. It would entail a LOT of “he said, she said” time in court for each ticket given regarding this issue. While the tired, old saw of “Your honor, I gave this citation based on my years of experience and time in the field” works in court, it does require exactly that TIME IN COURT. Police enjoy handing out basic, nearly uncontroversial tickets – like radar cited speeding tickets. Ones which can rarely be overturned no matter if the genius speeding happens to actually attempt to fight the citation.

    So, while your goals are admirable. Numbers 1&2 are solid, Number 3 (and the one cited in your previous rant on the subject) is useless. Find a better outlet.

    My reply to your desire for “stiffer fines” would be: “Define errantic driving.” And your immediate knee-jerk reply would be laughable. “Its anything that I it is!”

  • GabeSantosCSCO

    And yeah, its disjointed. Wah, its ain't high policy before the Court.

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