Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Make Morality Run the Rules of the Road

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood loves his job.

Which is too bad for the rest of us.

LaHood's job involves serving in a liberal presidential administration whose mandate includes spending obscene amounts of money on mass transit projects that won't work, and clapping onerous restrictions on the traveling public to the glorification of our increasingly intransigent bureaucracy.

Witness, for example, LaHood's incessant push for what he calls "high-speed" rail, despite the embarrassingly slow speeds he wants to achieve with this boondoggle.  Not to mention the exorbitant costs involved, and his misguided reliance on our much-maligned Amtrak rail agency to run everything.

Ban It?

Now, Bloomberg.com is reporting that LaHood is growing testy over media reports that he's advocating for an across-the-board federal ban on personal communication devices inside passenger cars.  By way of clarification, he says instead of wanting federal legislation, he wants all states to individually pursue legislation banning all cell phone use and even all navigation devices in all passenger cars.

But still, a ban is still a ban, whether it's on the state level, or the federal level.  Right?

This is the law-creep that conservatives so dislike about Washington.  And it's not like the improper use of telecommunication devices in cars is currently legal.  Laws already on the books penalize drivers for distracted driving, so why do we need more of them?  It's like our laws designed specifically for crimes against women, crimes against children, crimes against certain races, crimes against homosexuals, and on and on.  If murder, robbery, assault, and rape are already against the law, how much more against-the-law should it be to murder, rob, assault, or rape anybody who's not a white middle-aged male?

Maybe LaHood hopes that even his idle threats of additional legislation will help scare us into changing our dangerous behaviors.  But threats tend to sound like cries of "wolf!" after a while, don't they?  So either way, whether he's serious, or simply trying to keep the dangers of distracted driving in the spotlight, isn't he going about this problem all wrong?

Take It Seriously

And distracted driving is a real problem.

Almost inevitably, when I'm driving on a freeway and notice another car slow down for no good reason, when I overtake it, I can see the driver is texting.  Sometimes drivers slow down gradually to text, like they're checking to see if the message they're receiving is worth an immediate response.  Then, when they decide that yes, it's of utmost importance that they respond right then with an "Lol," they begin slowing down drastically.

Maybe they think that slowing down before texting is a good thing.  But is it?  Depending on how heavy traffic is, this can cause other drivers to begin swerving or dodging around them, imperiling all of the rest of us in the process.  Yet as we drive past the miscreant, that person is usually oblivious to the pile-up they almost caused.  I've seen them literally steering with their knees, or with both of their hands clasped around their phone, which is perched at the top of their steering wheel.

As long as drivers get away with it - despite all the near-wrecks their distracted driving may have precipitated - they will continue to do so.  It's like speeding and drunk driving:  they're both illegal, yet plenty of people still speed and/or drive drunk, because only a fraction of offenders ever get caught.  So although it sounds like more laws provide a good fix for preventing drivers from getting away with distracted driving, we already have proof that laws themselves won't work.

Cops can't write enough speeding tickets as it is.  Plenty of drunk drivers never get caught until they've caused a horrible accident.  So somehow, LaHood's laws will be different?

Let's face it:  most of the contraptions people use while driving aren't critical to the driving process.  For example, we've been driving for 100 years without GPS systems, and even as their technology evolves, GPS systems aren't entirely fool-proof.  They don't accurately account for construction, detours, and bad traffic.  And some systems are simply too cumbersome to be used in conjunction with complex driving situations.  Unfortunately, it's the drivers who expect the rest of us to accommodate their bad driving - so they can figure out what their GPS is telling them - that put other drivers who use their devices appropriately in the same negative light.

When it comes to talking on cell phones, most drivers will find it hard to believe that many of their calls can wait.  I know people view their time in the car as an opportunity to finally have those long telephone conversations they've been putting off.  I understand that businesspeople believe that if they don't combine driving with talking on the phone, they could miss a deal.  Unfortunately, being altruistic and trying to wait until you can park to talk only works until you realize nobody else shares your sense of moral imperative.  It becomes too easy to go with the flow.

In some ways, the telecommunications genie has been let out of the bottle, and there's no easy way our hectic society will put it back in again.  Some people even argue that we shouldn't try.  But the families of victims of distracted drivers would argue differently.  And those families have a valid point.  As does LaHood:  safe driving should be our goal.  It's part of being a civil society in which we display common courtesy to others with whom we're sharing a public right-of-way.

Some people claim that inconclusive driving fatality statistics don't merit such an emphasis on regulating distracted driving.  But I'd qualify the disputed results from fatality data with a "not yet," since the telecommunication revolution in our cars has only just begun.  I'd also point out that fatality wrecks likely don't comprise the bulk of incidents in which distracted driving plays a causal role.  How many non-injury fender-benders are caused every day by distracted drivers?  The effects of these relatively minor accidents can still be expensive in terms of automobile repair costs, minor injuries, traffic congestion and police time, and other ancillary considerations.

Calling All Cars

Since yet another law won't be a practical or effective way to resolve the dilemma of distracted driving, that doesn't mean other tools couldn't be.  Here are just three ideas:
  • Encourage automakers to design their in-board GPS devices to be programmable only while the car is in park.  This way, people can't fiddle with the settings while the car is in motion.
  • Encourage car insurance companies to write policies that penalize drivers who cause accidents while using their cell phones.  If you're in an accident - maybe even if the police don't determine it's your fault - and you go to file a claim, your insurance carrier could accept or decline your claim based on their research of your cell phone records.  This way, drivers who never use their phones while driving can be eligible for lower rates, because they'll never be caught violating those terms of their policy.
  • It's not just technology that causes distracted driving.  Encourage car insurance companies to remind their policy holders of the dangers of noises and conversations from fellow passengers.  There probably aren't too many polite ways for drivers to tell other people in their car to be quiet, and parents certainly can't be spending their entire ride screaming at their kids to be quiet.  But the more we become aware of how inappropriate - and even dangerous - things we do in our living rooms become when we do them in our cars, the safer all of us will be.
Make the Right Call

The reason why it's dangerous to simply write another law to combat dangerous behavior is that pretty soon, before we know it, we'll be a nation in which personal responsibility is crippled, ethics and morality no longer exist on their own merits, and liberty itself gets hobbled underneath a crushing grid of constraints.

To the extent that personal responsibility, ethics and morality, and liberty itself are still valued in our society, we need to practice them and model them.  Daily.  Regularly.  Consistently.  And convincingly.  We need to make them the standard, not our reliance on laws.

This is nothing new.  Plenty of more important people than myself have said these same things far more powerfully.  But at some point, we're going to have to start acting on them.

Before people like Ray LaHood are allowed too much pleasure in their job.

Update:  As if on queue, the Los Angeles Times ran a story Wednesday about the upsurge in violators of California's distracted driving laws.

1 comment:

  1. How else are we going to prevent wasted spending to happen? This the part where it's do depressing to have these kind of people as one of the higher ups in society. Thanks for making us aware of the issues.


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