Distracted Driving Kills, But What About Dysfunctional Policy?

The Obama administration, having succeeded in bringing about economic recovery and having nation-built a democratic Afghanistan, has set its sights on another pressing issue: driving while distracted. Today in Washington, the Department of Transportation is holding its second annual Distracted Driving Summit. This meeting of the minds brings together finger-waving bureaucrats and activists from across the country to devise strategies on how to make another molehill into a mountain. They even have a website, Distraction.gov, which instructs lowly citizen visitors to “Become a fan of [Transportation] Secretary [Ray] LaHood [on Facebook]” (which, of course, I did).

LaHood is currently waging a war on “texting while driving,” as many cities and states continue to ban holding phones behind the wheel. But why the selective hysteria over texting and hand-held cell phones? Research suggests that drivers using hands-free devices are no safer than those using hand-held devices, yet I have heard no calls to prohibit hands-free devices — not to mention fiddling with the stereo or yelling at your kids in the backseat or listening to NPR’s awful cringe-fest “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!,” which are also potentially deadly distractions.

These laws, which have little effect on actual human behavior (particularly among high-risk demographics) given that they are so difficult to enforce, have little basis in reality. Despite the fact that many drivers ignore these laws, distracted driving deaths fell this past year. LaHood and his cronies have no doubt taken credit, despite there being no evidence to support their shameless high-fiving.

The Independent Institute’s transportation guru Gabriel Roth (editor of the indispensable volume on creative, market-based transportation solutions Street Smart) suggests that focusing on distracted driving is a way for transportation officials to avoid addressing real problems because, well, they are the problem.

CEI has long noted that, as they continue to be ratcheted up, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will continue to kill thousands of drivers by putting them into smaller, lighter, less-safe cars. Yet because The Environment is spared a trivial amount of damage, that’s okay. A government monopoly over the roads preempts the market-based solution — insurance testing and certification, just like they often do in the shipping industry — with inefficient, expensive, poorly enforced government mandates. Yet this is okay because it keeps politicians and bureaucrats such as LaHood perpetually employed.

Rather than holding summits and engineering new nanny state policies, regulators and their cheerleaders should focus on rolling back deadly and perverse government mandates.