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.