DOT Sec. LaHood Takes Aim at Texting While Driving, Car Gadgetry, Sound Policy


Obama Transportation Secreatry Ray LaHood is now formally pushing a federal law banning texting while driving. LaHood has already banned texting for commercial truck and bus operators and federal employees on the job, but applying the ban to regular motorists would presumably involve blackmailing the states with federal highway funds.

But LaHood isn't stopping there. According to US News, LaHood also wants "a device to shut down phones and BlackBerrys when the engine is started." And he's not a fan of GPS, satellite radio, and other enhancements that make time in the car more enjoyable, explaining in curmudgeon dialect that "I'm concerned that some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles in cars that are going to distract people."

As I explained in a piece for US News last year, it's far from clear that any of these distractions are causing mass carnage on the highways:

Since 1995, there's been an eightfold increase in cellphone subscribers in the United States, and we've increased the number of minutes spent on cellphones by a factor of 58.

What's happened to traffic fatalities in that time? They've dropped—slightly, but they've dropped. Overall reported accidents since 1997 have dropped, too, from 6.7 million to 6 million. Proponents of a ban on cellphones say those numbers should have dropped more. "We've spent billions on air bags, antilock brakes, better steering, safer cars and roads, but the number of fatalities has remained constant," safety researcher David Strayer told the New York Times in July. "Our return on investment for those billions is zero. And that's because we're using devices in our cars."

Strayer would have a point if he were looking at the right statistics. But we drive a lot more than we did in 1995. Deaths in proportion to passenger miles are a far better indicator of road safety than overall fatalities. In 1995, there were 1.72 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. By 2007, the figure had dropped to 1.36, a 21 percent decline.

Of course, it's possible that were it not for all the distraction LaHood bemoans, those numbers would be even lower. But let's at least have an honest debate: We're on our cell phones more, we're driving more, and we're on our cell phones while driving more. In that time, the roads have gotten safer, not more dangerous.

Intuition also suggests that getting step-by-step GPS directions from your cell phone is quite a bit less distracting than fumbling with and following your trip progress in an Atlas. It's also hard to conceive of a device of the type LaHood wants that would kill the driver's phone but still allow passengers use of their cell phones. Barring all cell phone use in the car seems like a horrendous overreaction, with all sorts of unintended consequences I'll bet LaHood hasn't considered.

But LaHood has met with the families of people allegedly killed by distracted drivers. And he has said that cell phone-toting drivers in D.C. annoy him. All of which suggests enforceability, practicality, perspective, and the possibility of unintended consequences aren't likely to factor into his decision, nor into whether Congress decides to follow his lead.