Support Rep. Diane Black’s MTI to Halt Misguided Federal Support for “Distracted Driving” Laws

Today, Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) issued a notice of her intent to offer a motion to instruct (MTI) [PDF] highway bill conferees to oppose Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s attempt to incentivize states to create and enforce laws against so-called “distracted driving.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute, along with Americans for Tax Reform, Heritage Action, and others strongly supports Rep. Black’s MTI. While Rep. Black cites very valid federalist concerns, we believe that there are additional fatal flaws — literally — with said legislation.

As I have noted before, distracted driving laws are really laws designed to restrict cell phone use in automobiles. While calling or texting while driving certainly presents additional crash risk, cell-phone-related distraction factors are hardly the most risky distraction factors. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, talking to other passengers is a factor in far more crashes than talking on cell phones or texting [PDF]. I have yet to hear a single person call for a ban on carpooling (what would we do with all the paternalistic HOV lanes?).

When the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a misguided recommendation in December 2011 calling for stricter “distracted driving” (in reality, anti–cell phone) laws at the state level, I raised the following serious problems with such legislation:

Obviously NTSB isn’t going to call for bans on speaking in motor vehicles or isolating the driver from the rest of the cab with soundproofing technology. But there are plenty more potential internal distractions to worry about: watching your kids in the backseat through the rear-view mirror, reading a map, eating and drinking, smoking, grooming, adjusting the stereo, using a navigation device, adjusting climate controls, retrieving objects from seats or the floor, etc.

All of these internal distraction factors are primarily or partially responsible for some accidents. Rather than instituting bans on what drivers may or may not be doing inside their automobiles, licensing and testing authorities ought to be educating drivers on safe driving behaviors. Multitasking while driving naturally increases crash risk, but does anyone for a minute believe that prohibiting all multitasking (whatever that even means) would be enforceable or even beneficial?

But even if distraction bans are enforced, they may not even work. According to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute, hardly a pro-distraction outfit, state bans on hand-held phone use while driving do not reduce crash risk [PDF] and state bans on texting while driving may actually increase crash risk [PDF]. “[C]learly drivers did respond to the bans somehow, and what they might have been doing was moving their phones down and out of sight when they texted, in recognition that what they were doing was illegal. This could exacerbate the risk of texting by taking drivers’ eyes further from the road and for a longer time.”

So according to the auto insurance industry — which has an incentive to reduce crash risk — banning the use of cell phones while driving may not only have a zero impact on crash risk, bans specifically targeting texting-while-driving may actually increase crash risk.

While the do-gooder forces within the Department of Transportation almost certainly believe these laws are sought for noble reasons, their ignorance and hubris will potentially lead to more road deaths — in addition to wasting transportation funds, distracting law enforcement, and reducing our freedom. The biggest problem is not distracted driving; rather, it is distractions from sensible transportation policy that pose the biggest, and potentially more deadly, problems.

The House will debate Rep. Black’s MTI tomorrow. We thank her for standing with rationality and liberty in the face of the usual suspects that are supporting a worthless, misguided, technocratic assault on Americans’ freedoms.