“Hang Up So I Can Write You A Ticket”

Last week U.S. Transportation Secretary Roy Lahood announced a new program in which states, beginning with Connecticut and New York, will receive federal grants to help enforce laws against driving while using a hand-held cell phone.  The campaign, called “Phone in one hand. Ticket in the other,” includes public service announcements, warnings on highway signs, and an increased likelihood that drivers using hand-held cell phones will be pulled over by the police who spot them.  LaHood said that the program is aimed at getting the kind of compliance states see for seat belt laws, with about 85 percent of drivers regularly buckling up.

The analogy to seat belts is a good one, as I have already written on Co-Op.  This new program seeks to make using a cell phone while driving similar to smoking or driving drunk—that is, behavior that was once socially acceptable but no longer is.  The rub, however, is captured in a comment by Representative Richard Roy, the chief proponent of Connecticut’s ban on hand-held cell phones while driving.  In an interview with the Connecticut Post, Representative Roy explained, “I think the law is working fairly well.  Far more people are using hands-free devices than used to, but there are still far too many people just chatting along, holding the phone to their face.” 

Ample research has demonstrated that driving while talking on a hands-free device is also unsafe.  (You can read about some of the research by following the link in the prior paragraph.)  If Representative Roy’s take on what has happened in Connecticut is correct, the ban on hand-held cell phones has pushed people to substitute one dangerous behavior for another.   

State legislatures and the federal government need to calibrate their message to make clear that talking on the phone while driving is dangerous, period.  I recognize that a ban on hands-free devices poses enormous enforcement problems, because how do the police detect who is talking on a hands-free device and who is not?  Still, at a minimum, why not change the name of this program to something that suggests talking on the phone is the problem, not merely holding the phone?  Or, to ratchet it up several degrees, shouldn’t we at least be discussing whether car manufacturers should be allowed to sell vehicles with built-in hands-free devices?

Right now the takeaway is that a person can feel good about switching to a hands-free device.  This conclusion is absolutely belied by the evidence.

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4 Responses

  1. TJ says:

    I think you should clarify the problems with banning hands-free devices go a lot further than “enforcement problems.” The more basic problem is that very few people think that hands-free devices are dangerous, or so dangerous as to outweigh the cost of being disconnected while behind the wheel (which for some people can be several hours a day).

  2. Dave says:

    It’s got to be true that talking on a hands-free device is also dangerous, but is it as dangerous as talking on the phone itself? Instinctively, I’d suspect that the latter is much more dangerous because it limits physical dexterity as well as concentration.

    That said, there are at least three reasons why campaigns might do well to focus on cellphone talking, while not emphasizing the risks of hands-free devices:

    1. Hands-free devices, while somewhat unsafe, are much safer than standard cellphones, so encouraging their use is still a meaningful net improvement (not sure if the evidence supports this).

    2. Phone use of any sort is so pervasive that an incrementalist strategy will be more effective. “Talk in your car, but only on a hands-free device” is a much easier behavior change to implement than “No cellphone use in cars, period.”

    3. Enforcement of hands-free cellphone use in cars is well-nigh impossible. Hell, much of what we do in cars is unsafe–rocking out to the radio, having in-person conversations, etc. In a perfect world, we’d just concentrate on driving, and all would be well. But in the imperfect world we live in, small changes like the current spate of cellphone restrictions may be the best short-term option.

  3. ParatrooperJJ says:

    It would be nice if the laws were applied equally, most of these anticellphone laws exempt police.

  4. Ken says:

    The author’s post contains an “all or nothing” point of view, which is particularly risky in attempting to influence people, because it tends to engender the “nothing” response.

    Yes, talking on the phone is dangerous. But c’mon now:

    >>Ample research has demonstrated that driving while talking on a hands-free device is also unsafe. … the ban on hand-held cell phones has pushed people to substitute one dangerous behavior for another.>>

    The cited prior link presented data that showed the first sentence to be true, but no data to enable us to evaluate the relative amount of danger, which is a key element of the second sentence. “Substitute one dangerous behavior for another?” Don’t we need to know the degree of danger of each to assess that statement?

    I should think that encouraging a less dangerous substitute behavior would be a good thing, especially if the alternative–banning both behaviors–has a small chance of success.