[FoRK] Laws that ban texting while driving could be counter productive

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Thu Sep 15 00:40:46 PDT 2011

On Wed Sep 14 21:07:13 2011, Gary Stock wrote:
> The risk of driving is largely a ~collective~ risk. It's time to stop pretending otherwise.
> Even the most superior, godlike driver can have an accident. That's why they call them "accidents."
> More than one car is often involved in a collision. That's why they call them "collisions."
> As repeatedly acknowledged here, a significant number of people are "zoned out" or suffer "stunted" performance, while another 
> number "Have screaming kids in the car? Thinking? Being hungry? Having to go to the bathroom?" What does that distracted 
> segment total? Forty percent all cars on the road? Sixty?
> That leaves safety up to the ~rest~ of us. We must ~compensate~ for that distracted group -- or die with them.
> As our "responsible" segment becomes more distracted by electronic devices and remote activities, safety ~does~ suffer. It's 
> foolish to suggest otherwise -- no matter how superhuman we wish we were -- because we're not alone on the roads.

Those that advocate against any and all things that might increase risk 
for some or all people, no matter how slightly, usually seem to be 
implying that there is no balancing upside, such as making better use 
of drive time.  Most drivers have a cognitive and attention surplus 
much of the time.  It is fine to suggest that navigating busy 
intersections, traffic circles, around pedestrians, near children, etc. 
are all situations where distractions should be at a minimum.  Or 
rather, that drivers should be very positive that they are able to give 
all necessary attention without delay.  It is lunacy to expand that to 
blanket bans on relatively low distraction / high value activities in 
situations such as cruising on straight highways with light traffic and 
no intersections.  Although I almost completely avoid commute time now, 
I have had to drive 50 miles each way through some of the worst traffic 
in the country.  Many people are stuck with that now.  Sometimes it is 
nearly all of their free (ish) time.

The problem with this kind of discussion is that there is no grounding 
in balanced needs and real numbers.  At what point are things safe 
enough?  What is the perception of safety, or lack thereof, vs. 
reality?  Everyone, if asked a shallow, naive question would 
essentially answer "I want perfect safety".  But people as a whole 
clearly are not interested in that at all, at least not in any strict 
sense.  They smoke, ride motorcycles without helmets, drink too much, 
do drugs, become overweight, etc.  They want to live a little.

There are 876600 hours in 100 years, a reasonably good lifespan.  Let's 
say that you drove 2 hours per day 5 days a week for 50 years, giving 
26089 driving hours.  If you multitasked every bit of that time: Even 
if you had 6 hours of leisure time per week day ( a stretch for most 
people who commute to work ), that is nearly 12 years of additional 
marginal living time.

At what marginal increase of accident rate would a fully rational 
person (and legislature) decide that enough was enough?  (Leaving out 
the possibility that safety could be improved by various methods.)
I don't think that you or they have examined the actuarials to reach 
anything like a rational decision.

In 2009, there were 30,797 fatal crashes in the US, with 33,808 
fatalities.  Total.  Out of 2.979 Billion miles traveled.  That number 
has trended down significantly since at least 1994, well before there 
was significant chance to multitask electronically.  That's not very 
supportive of the case for restricting electronic multitasking while 
driving.  Relatedly alcohol-impaired fatalities have "declined from 48 
percent in 1982 to 32 percent in 2007".

That equates to 1.13 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, or 1.13 
for every 2 million hours traveled.
If the accident rate increased by 25% because of multitasking 
(astronomical), that would be 354 million driving miles and 5.9 million 
driving hours per additional fatality.
As a couple studies show, some people are just as safe and alert and 
some people some of the time are more safe and alert.  This is going to 
offset or at least average against some of those that are not.  
Additionally, any risk increase is going to come into play in a small 
portion of the driving time and still be relatively rare.
Let's say that the marginal risk is a 10% increase, but only affecting 
5% of time (3 minutes every hour).  That would be 17.7 billion driving 
miles (1M/1.13/.10/.05) and 294 million driving hours per additional 

That's 294 million driving hours talking on the phone in a 
much-more-than-normally risky way, per person killed.  Subtracting 
sleeping time and other overhead, accounting for typical lifespan and 
the range of productive, happy life, and narrowing the driving hours 
exposure to realistic levels, how many lifetimes of living is gained 
vs. lives lost?  Assuming 30 years, 200 days, .5 hours avg. per person, 
that is the amount of commute time for nearly 100,000 people.  It is 50 
years of 8 hours per day of "life" (a weak definition of a "lifetime") 
for 2020 people.  It is every hour of life for 336 centenarians.

Are you sure it is valid to trade away that much "life" for that many 
"lives"?  Especially since, with a little training (do not dial, look, 
type, or talk much while approaching an intersection...) the risk could 
be drastically reduced.

IMHO, evidence even vaguely in line with that analysis is enough to 
constitutionally invalidate those types of laws.
There is a constitutional right to travel (a driver's license is a 
privilege but the right should be freely exercisable once license is 
granted, IMO), and variations of "the pursuit of life, liberty, and 
happiness" are supported by 2 bills of right, common law, Declaration, 
etc.  Multitasking is an act in pursuit of life etc., balance only by 
costs to others.  Hard to see how those costs are significant enough to 
offset the value.

> To suggest that the "act of driving" happens in such isolation is a bit like choosing to drive a bigger car because it's 
> "safer." Safer for whom? Not safer for anyone driving a more ecologically responsible smaller car. Driving the bigger car 
> makes you more likely to commit vehicular manslaughter. Where's the "safety" in that? In your imagination.
> Arguing ~only~ the positives of a collective situation -- as though anyone who wishes it can have nuthin' but upside -- 
> ignores the many (usually equal, sometimes more profound) negatives. It's the motoring equivalent of "trickle down economics," 
> where everything just gets better and better. I do hope we're smarter than that.

Arguing only the negatives of a situation while ignoring the positives 
smacks of a non-rational decision process.  Riskiness costs lives, 
safety costs life.  A similar analysis would almost definitely show 
that TSA-related overhead is costing magnitudes more life than it 
saves.  Offset only by peace of mind for the unthinking masses who 
demand security theater, then complain when it is annoying.

> GS


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