The Cell-Phone Scourge

Today’s edition of The New York Times carries an article by Matt Richtel, “U.S. Withheld Data on Risks of Distracted Driving.” Richtel writes (in part):

In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel.

They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.

But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.

On Tuesday, the full body of research is being made public for the first time by two consumer advocacy groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents. The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen provided a copy to The New York Times, which is publishing the documents on its Web site….

“We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up,” said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety…..

The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002.

The researchers also shelved a draft letter they had prepared for Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to send, warning states that hands-free laws might not solve the problem.

That letter said that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason: a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers’ focus off the road, studies showed.

The research mirrors other studies about the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel. Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.

The three-person research team based the fatality and accident estimates on studies that quantified the risks of distracted driving, and an assumption that 6 percent of drivers were talking on the phone at a given time. That figure is roughly half what the Transportation Department assumes to be the case now.

More precise data does not exist because most police forces have not collected long-term data connecting cellphones to accidents. That is why the researchers called for the broader study with 10,000 or more drivers.

“We nevertheless have concluded that the use of cellphones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities,” according to a “talking points” memo the researchers compiled in July 2003.

It added: “We therefore recommend that the drivers not use wireless communication devices, including text messaging systems, when driving, except in an emergency.”

It comes as no news to any observant person that using a cell-phone of any kind can be a dangerous distraction to a driver. Richtel cites some of the previous work on the subject, work that I have cited in earlier posts about the cell-phone scourge. (See, especially, “Cell Phones and Driving, Once More” and its addendum.)

Richtel’s piece underscores the dangers of driving while using a cell phone. It also — perhaps unwittingly — underscores the misfeasance and malfeasance that are typical of government. I say unwittingly because TNYT has a (selective) bias toward government: nanny-ism = good; defense and justice = bad. In this case, the Times finds government in the wrong because it hasn’t been nanny-ish enough.

The Times to the contrary, government has but one legitimate role: to protect citizens from harm. I have no objection to laws banning cell-phone use by drivers, even though — at first blush — such laws might seem anti-libertarian. So-called libertarians who defend driving-while-cell-phoning are merely indulging in the kind of posturing that I have come to expect from the cosseted solipsists who, unfortunately, have come to dominate — and represent — what now passes for libertarianism.

Such “libertarians” to the contrary, liberty comes with obligations. One of those obligations is the responsibility to act in ways that do not harm others. (Another obligation is to defend liberty, or to pay taxes so that others can defend it on your behalf.) The “right” to drive does not include the “right” to drive while drunk or distracted. In sum, a ban on cell-phone use by drivers is entirely libertarian. As I have said,

for the vast majority of drivers there is no alternative to the use of public streets and highways. Relatively few persons can afford private jets and helicopters for commuting and shopping. And as far as I know there are no private, drunk-drivers-and-cell-phones-banned highways. Yes, there might be a market for those drunk-drivers-and-cell-phones-banned highways, but that’s not the reality of here-and-now.

So, I can avoid the (remote) risk of death by second-hand smoke by avoiding places where people smoke. But I cannot avoid the (less-than-remote) risk of death at the hands of a drunk or cell-phone yakker. Therefore, I say, arrest the drunks, cell-phone users, nail-polishers, newspaper-readers, and others of their ilk on sight; slap them with heavy fines; add jail terms for repeat offenders; and penalize them even more harshly if they take life, cause injury, or inflict property damage.