Life, Liberty, And Cell Phones


From the August 2001 Edition of CEI Update


A car speeds down a busy highway, zigzagging  unpredictably from lane to lane. Inside, the driver is engaged in animated conversation on his cell phone, oblivious to the other cars around him. It’s a familiar sight; all of us have seen such drivers. OK, many of us have been such drivers.


Reacting to popular concern over such behavior, the state of New York passed the first statewide ban on handheld cell phone use in July. A number of other states are poised to follow suit. As the debate has progressed, I’ve heard any number of free-market advocates arguing against such a ban on principle. For instance, Tom Feeney, the Republican Speaker of the Florida House, recently stated flatly: “This is a personal liberty issue.”


That’s simply wrong. Now, CEI is second-to-none in its defense of individual rights. We’re card-carrying, Locke-reading, Hayek-following lovers of liberty. But I still can’t find a natural right to use a cell phone while driving. If there’s any legitimate purpose for government regulation, it’s to protect one individual against the actions of another. That’s exactly what cell phone regulations are intended to do. In other words, if my rights end at the tip of your nose, they certainly stop at your bumper as well.


(At this point, many industrious libertarians argue that since the government shouldn’t own roads anyway, it shouldn’t make rules for them. Nice try, but no cigar. Private roads are a good thing, but like it or not, most roads are owned by governments, and governments are the only ones that can set rules for their safe use).


That said, do we give a green light to restrictions on cell phone use? No. The mere fact that there’s a legitimate government role in an area doesn’t mean the government has to regulate. In fact, most major sources of driver distraction, ranging from adjusting to radio to talking to other occupants, are unregulated. These factors each are present in over seven times the number of accidents that cell phones are. Cell phones may simply be a more politically convenient target. Despite the widespread adoption of cell phones in recent years, it still has the image of being a toy for the rich.


Would the benefits of cell phone limits be worth the cost? The research so far suggests not. One recent study by Robert Hahn of the American Enterprise Institute and Paul Tetlock of Harvard University found that the benefits of a cell phone ban could be dwarfed by its costs to drivers. The study estimates that a ban could impose $25 billion worth of costs on society, while saving only about $4.6 billion. Even if “hands free” phone use is allowed, the cost would still be twice as high as the benefits.


The costs aren’t just a matter of dollars and cents. While proponents of restrictions point to the safety hazards of cell phones, there are very real safety benefits as well. Cell phones are increasingly becoming a primary lifeline for drivers in distress. Over 98,000 emergency calls are made from cell phones daily. How many of those would not have been made if cell phone use were restricted?


John Locke never articulated rights to life, liberty, and checking voice mail while in the left lane. There is no unlimited natural right to use a cell phone. But that doesn’t relieve policymakers of the obligation to consider the costs as well as the benefits of their actions. And the evidence so far indicates that drivers would be hurt, not helped, by cell phone restrictions.