Mandatory Cell Phone Jammers in Cars: Unwise, Unsafe, Unneeded

by on November 18, 2010 · 7 comments

Jeff Winkler of The Daily Caller was kind enough to call me for comment after seeing some tweets of mine about a new proposal floated by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to potentially mandate cell phone jamming technology be embedded in every car to minimize the risk of distracted driving.  While I am sympathetic to the concerns he and others have raised about the serious dangers associated with distracted driving, LaHood has been continuously upping the ante in terms of proposed regulatory responses to the problem.

Back in October, La Hood suggested that a ban on all cell phone communications in cars might be needed. He argued that even hands-free phone conversations are a “cognitive distraction” and should be prohibited and has also suggested that such a ban should extend to in-vehicle information and entertainment systems such as Ford Motor Co.’s Sync and General Motors Co.’s OnStar system. This means almost every conceivable in-vehicle technology could be regulated under LaHood’s “cognitive distraction” paradigm, including your car stereo and GPS system.  This week LaHood went further and suggested that it may be necessary to also mandate some sort of scrambling technology be embedded in all vehicles to completely block any potential wireless communications or connectivity.

My comments on that proposal appear in Winkler’s piece today, although Winkler notes that LaHood appears now to be backing off the idea.  However, just in case this idea (or the idea of banning all communications devices from cars more generally) pops up again, here’s what I find wrong with LaHood’s approach:

  1. Not practical: It’s simply not possible to eliminate all technology 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.  There’s just no stopping people from lugging their devices around with them wherever they go and finding ways to connect. And even if government forced signal jammers to be embedded in every vehicle, determined hackers would likely find a way around them fairly quickly and then tell the public how to defeat those systems.
  2. Potential unintended safety consequences:  We simply can’t eliminate every risk from life and trying to do so can have equally dangerous unintended consequences. For example, if all communications devices were banned from automobiles and then jamming devices were mandated for good measure, what happens when a driver veers of a snowy road into a ditch and needs to call or text for help? Perhaps there will be a switch to disable the jammer in a time of emergency, but wouldn’t people just flick it off preemptively, undercutting the ban entirely?
  3. Contradicts other laws: For some of the reasons listed in (2), the Federal Communications Commission generally disallows jamming technologies that would create negative externalities for others on the network through excessive signal interference. (See Section 333 of the Communications Act.)
  4. There are better solutions: There are more constructive solutions than outright technology bans or extreme measures like mandatory jammers. First, use technology to solve a problem technology has created.  Most new communications and computing devices have increasingly sophisticated voice-activated / hands-free features that make them safer to use.  Second, more driver education – especially for younger drivers — is also a big part of the solution. We need to step up those efforts. Finally, stiffer fines for erratic driving infractions may be necessary.
  5. It’s a local issue: On that last point, is there anything that lends itself better to state and local experimentation than road safety?  Seems to me that this is a good chance to let federalism work and see what various communities come up with in terms of solutions. Of course, wireless communications is regulated at the national level and efforts by local officials to take LaHood extreme approach could run afoul of federal wireless rules.  However, as noted in (4) there are plenty of alternative approaches that they could consider.
  6. Just too intrusive: I’m no anarchist; we do need some rules of the road to ensure driver safety. But there should also be some limits.  Conversations (and arguments) between passengers are a huge distracted driving problem, too, but we wouldn’t ban them. Nor would we ban singing at the wheel. Your liberties don’t completely disappear when you get in your car. Policymakers needs to avoid extreme solution such as those suggested by LaHood and instead find more constructive approaches that balance safety and liberty.

  • Foo

    I predict that this concerned public servant goes on to find a nice position working for Garmin.

  • Steve Crowley

    How about a voluntary system whereby I agree to not talk or text while driving in exchange for an insurance discount and allowing the insurance company to monitor and collect data on my wireless and driving behavior to verify compliance?

  • Adam Thierer

    Steve… I had someone else ask me that question yesterday. It’s an interesting idea, but the possibility of the negative externality still exists since it would be hard to contain the effects of jammers on out-of-vehicle cellular use. Of course, future innovations may help contain that problem and open up the door (so to speak) to this possibility.

  • Dglenn

    How would the jammer distinguish between the driver attempting to use a device (prohibited), and a_passenger trying to do the same (for which I have not yet been able to imagine any valid reason to want to interfere with)? Even if I’m driving and it’s my phone that rings, if I’m expecting a call relevant to the trip we’re in the middle of, I can just hand my phone to my passenger and ask her or him to answer the call. (And believe me, when members of a large band are carpooling to an out-of-state gig in multiple cars starting from different locations, sometimes you really want to be able to take a call from one of the other cars, especially if it turns out one car has just blown its transmission or somebody’s having trouble with the directions.)

    I never see any mention of passengers in these discussions. Are non-solo car trips really that rare now?

  • arjan

    I believe if this idea is directed to young people who can, at least until they turn 18 or leave under my roof, every vehicle in my household will have a cell jammer, it’s my piece of mind knowing that my kids are not on the phone, or that his/hers not so respeosible friend is horsning arround with his cell distracting the driver, we can’t forget that kids will be kids, and it’s our resposability to protect them.

  • Adam Thierer

    UPDATE 1/21/2010 – Steve Crowley brings to my attention this NY Times article on the development of new voluntary call blocking (or rerouting) technologies for cars:

  • Weselect08

    This issue is a large concern in my household. I have four boys two of witch drive. My 19 yr old just had a wreck where he rear-ended another car. I am sure he was texting although he pleads that he wasn,t. A high school girl was killed just the day before when she rear-ended a simi truck with-out hitting the breaks.My concerns brought me to this forum. I plan to purchase a jammer for there vehicles. I believe that the good that this would insure would surpass any of the negative.

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