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.

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