Texting While Driving: Regulate or Empower & Educate?

by on August 28, 2009 · 161 comments

Texting while driving is generally a bad idea, since it involves taking one’s hands off the wheel and eyes off the road. While not wearing your seatbelt in a car or a helmet on a motorcycle probably only risks your own life, there’s a good argument to be made that distracted drivers put the lives of others at risk. The WSJ reports that 17 states have banned texting while driving outright. But is such regulation really the best way to address the problem?

Technological Empowerment. The WSJ highlights innovative technological solutions that:

  1. Block calls and texts while the user is driving; OR
  2. Let drivers “speak” their texts using voice-to-text technology.

Those who consider even hands-free cell phone use unsafe will probably insist on the more draconian blocking solution—and want government to mandate it! Such mandates would indeed probably be more effective than relying on the police write tickets to drivers they see texting while driving (especially since such offenses, like calling while driving, usually require some other, more serious offense before an officer can pull over a driver). But do we really need the government telling us when we can use a technology that really might be essential in certain circumstances, or totally safe in others (say, when we’re behind the wheel but stopped at a long light or in a traffic jam)?

The fascinating thing is that these solutions need not be mandated by government: At least some users will actually pay for them! Why? Because, sometimes we’re better off by being able to “bind” our future selves—just as Ulysses asked his crew to tie him to his ship’s mast so he could enjoy the Siren’s enchanting song without giving in to their spell. Similarly, these texting-blocking technologies empower users in three senses:

  1. Some users know they shouldn’t text while driving but—like smokers and people who casually pick their noses—just can’t stop, so they want external discipline;
  2. Others just want the monthly discount on their car insurance; and
  3. Parents want to make sure they can discipline their children, who have a hard time resisting the impulse to pick up the phone.

Obviously, there are limits to how far reasons 1 and 3 can go.  Reason #1 requires at least a desire to change: As the young playboy Saint Augustine prayed, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet!” Reason #3 requires private sector paternalism in the most literal sense. But reason #2 requires nothing more than the self-interest of users and insurance companies, which can happily coincide with road safety given the right technology. I suspect this solution is much more likely to be effective than simple government mandates, much as insurance company discounts for having smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems in your home or office are probably more effective at promoting such technologies than the threat of a fine from a government inspector.

Education. Here, as elsewhere, the “less restrictive” alternative to regulation isn’t technological empowerment alone, but empowerment in combination with education. As Adam said in 2007 of anti-cell phone effort: “Banning In-Car Technologies Won’t Work.”

The proper solution here is education, not regulation. During driver training education, teenagers and other new drivers need to be taught the importance of keeping both hands on the wheel and their eyes pointed straight ahead at the road. Operating a vehicle is serious business with serious repercussions if you ignore basic rules of driving safety. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have access to communications / entertainment devices while in your car. We just need to teach new drivers how (and when) to use them properly. For example, set up playlists in your iPod and start them running before you pull out of the driveway. And program the preset buttons on your car stereo or satellite radio device so you can switch stations without looking. If you have to scroll to find something new to listen to, try to do it when you’re at a stop light, not when you’re driving down a busy street with a lot of pedestrians around.

If governments really want to “do something” for road safety, they should build awareness of technological empowerment solutions, especially among parents and kids. They can also fund public service announcements like this one, which is not for the faint of heart:

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