There's nothing like passion to create overreaction. My column last week on why it's a bad idea for communities such as Chapel Hill, N.C., to ban vehicle drivers from using even hands-free mobile devices generated an outpouring of reader comments and email. Some agreed with me, others didn't, but disturbingly a few readers used a broad brush to correlate the dangers of mobile phones with DUI. "Driving while talking on a cell phone has been shown to be equivalent to driving drunk," says one reader. "Are you against DUI legislation?"
Um, no. But only DUI is DUI. Although there might be levels of seratonin and oxytocin generated by social contact, no alcohol whatsoever enters the bloodstream from mobile phone use. Partisans often use this kind of hyperbole to create an inflated sense of urgency. As long as we're engaging in this type of logic, why not call mobile phone use the new genocide? Mobility presents some significant safety challenges, but we need to find solutions, not run around shouting that the sky is falling.
To be fair, there's sound science behind the comparison of just-at-the-legal-limit DUI and mobile phone use. But before jumping to conclusions, you must actually a) read the research, and b) note the disclaimers and experiment control groups. My objection isn't to the comparison; it's to the unequivocal comparison. Here's what one study on the subject, by researchers at the University of Utah, says (emphasis mine): "Impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk." The researchers go on to say that "although the study established a strong association between cell phone use and motor vehicle accidents, it did not demonstrate a causal link between cell phone use and increased accident rates." I understand why it's tempting to establish a causal relationship between phone use and accidents that's as serious as DUI. Back in high school, one of my classmates died due to DUI. A peer of my high school-age son died as a result of texting while driving. We have serious conversations about both in my household. We as a society need to avoid a knee-jerk reaction that shuts off all rational discourse.
We need to take experimental science into account, and apply a bit of critical thinking. One reader wrote: "Cell phone calls are far more dangerous than carrying on a conversation with a passenger. A real passenger is privy to the situation you are in from weather, road conditions, and traffic, and they know when to shut up and let you concentrate on driving. A cell caller does not."
But to my point that passengers can be equally distracting, my kids don't care about weather, road conditions, or traffic, and they never know when to stop talking or fighting. When they were younger, they were far more distracting than any phone call. But that doesn't mean the government needs to step in and regulate kids in cars. The question isn't about whether something is "bad" or "dangerous." I think we all agree that, to some extent, mobile computing and communications can be distracting. The question is whether it's right for the government to use fear tactics to remove our free will in order to give us a sense of safety. And anyone paying attention understands that mobile technology--unlike DUI--actually can provide safety benefits. For example, police departments recommend that if you think you're about to be pulled over by a scam police officer, dial 911. As one reader noted: "There are indeed responsible ways to drive and talk, but there are no responsible ways to drive drunk."
Let's remember that the "wisdom of the crowd" is often not wisdom at all, but a mob mentality. Taking action without applying critical thinking can be embarrassing and even dangerous.
But heck, some folks argue, even if texting and chatting on the phone while driving isn't like DUI, why not regulate and see what happens? One reader, citing states as an incubator of ideas, said: "I would hope to see a few states or cities institute a ban, and then after a few years we can compare data to see if the number of accidents goes down."
That's a tempting argument, but only if you agree that more regulation should be the default recourse for solving problems. I'm not arguing that we downplay the risks or dangers of mobile technology, but we shouldn't downplay the risks of home swimming pools either, and according to behavioral economist Steven Levitt, they're 100 times more dangerous than owning a gun. Ban home swimming pools, right? Absolutely not.
Instead of passing more laws in a country where one law can run 2,700 pages, cost people lots of money, and remove personal liberty, let's rethink the role of government in encouraging personal and corporate responsibility. The role of government isn't always to say no. Governments can also say yes and encourage discussion and certain actions. Governments can provide incentives and education, and even work with entrepreneurs to solve problems. Becoming more of a fear-based nanny state isn't the answer.