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Ramesh Ponnuru: Facts do not support efforts to ban cell phone use while driving

May 16. 2012 7:10PM

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood slapped down Reuters for reporting a few weeks ago that he wants 'a federal law to ban talking on a cell phone or texting while driving any type of vehicle on any road in the country.'

His press secretary, Justin Nisly, called the report inaccurate, saying LaHood merely wants 'Congress to incentivize states to pass anti-texting and driving legislation, similar to the approach taken to prevent drunk driving and promote seat belt use.'

It's not a reassuring comment, because LaHood's crusade against what he calls the 'epidemic' of distracted driving long ago lost contact with any sense of reasonable limits.

LaHood has said he is considering a ban on the use of mobile phones, even hands-free ones, in cars. He says, 'We should set the standard at the safest place to be.' He has also said, 'You can't drive safely when you are trying to adjust your GPS system or the radio.' He has announced as well that the government is looking into technology that would disable phones in cars.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency allied with LaHood on this issue, wants states to ban all portable devices, whether hand-held or hands-free, with exceptions for emergency calls and the use of navigation systems.

You'd have to be a pretty hard-core libertarian to insist that the government can't, in principle, regulate people's behavior in cars even if it poses a risk to others. Not many people object to drunken-driving laws. But we should have a presumption against regulation, and overcoming that presumption ought to require solid evidence.

And the evidence for LaHood's 'epidemic' talk is overblown. Advocating the NTSB's preferred ban, its chairman Deborah Hersman noted that 3,092 people had died in distracted-driving incidents in 2010. The Transportation Department estimates that Americans drove 3 trillion miles that year. That works out to 970 million miles driven for each distracted-driving fatality.

To put these numbers in further perspective: Drunken driving caused more than three times as many fatalities. And mobile phones were not the main cause of distractions, either, even if Hersman implied that they were. In 2009, the Transportation Department found that phones were either being used by or 'in the presence of' a driver in 18 percent of distracted-driving fatalities. Another department report concluded that 'conversing with a passenger was the most common source of distraction' from inside cars.

Even as digital devices proliferate, our roads are getting safer, not more dangerous. The same news release that announced 3,092 distracted-driving deaths for 2010 pointed out that traffic fatalities were at their lowest in six decades. The roads would have been even safer if more drivers had paid attention to the road instead of their phone calls. But that problem hasn't been severe enough to reverse the downward trend in fatalities.

There is little evidence that state laws already enacted against text-messaging while driving are saving lives, either. In 2010, the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit research organization sponsored by the insurance industry, found that these laws had actually increased accident rates, perhaps because they lead to drivers' 'hiding their phones from view,' which requires them to move their eyes further from the road.

An accident in Missouri in 2010, in which a 19-year-old driver had been sending text messages before getting into a crash that led to two deaths and 38 injuries, illustrates the enforcement problem. It was this accident that led to the NTSB's recommendation. But Missouri law already banned drivers under 21 from sending text messages.

When LaHood's aide talks about 'incentivizing' states, what he means is that the federal government should withhold transportation funds unless states pass tough laws. That's what the government has done on drunken driving. But there is no case for such federal intervention in the case of distracted driving. We don't know what policies will pass a cost-benefit test. Different states might make different trade-offs between risk and convenience, and there is no reason every state needs to make the same one.

James Pericola, a chief of staff at the NTSB during the Clinton administration who is now at the Seward Square Group lobbying firm, says LaHood's hostility to drivers' use of technology 'is just not realistic.' Companies that provide technology for drivers, such as GPS makers, have also been slow to see the danger of overregulation and to resist LaHood, he adds. 'No one is standing up for the consumer on this issue.'

LaHood has taken to dealing out his own low-tech punishment to drivers who use mobile phones: He honks his horn at them. That's got to be distracting for everyone nearby.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.

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