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December 2000
Volume 18, Number 12

Cell Phone Hazard?
Timothy D. Terrell 

Many of us have had close calls or experienced rude behavior from distracted drivers with handheld cellular phones pressed to their ears. Some can tell hair-raising stories, and a small number of fatal auto accidents are said to be attributable to cell phone use.

But to the policy elite, it is not enough to note that tragedies occur, that they be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, that others learn to be more careful. No, we must pass a law, impose a regulation, and have a new central plan - anything to use misfortune for the purposes of building the state. Every problem calls for a solution involving political services.

So the regulations have begun. Two towns, so far, have passed laws banning the use of cellular phones while driving. In Illinois, the giant cellular telephone provider Verizon said it would lobby for a state law prohibiting anything but "hands_free" cellular phone use by drivers.

Verizon may have acted out of concern that it would have been difficult to deal with hundreds of different municipal ordinances. Yet such a law could set an important precedent. If Illinois regulates drivers' phone use, it would be the first to succeed of over twenty states to consider doing so. Other states could be expected to follow suit. Of course, the feds have also caught wind of the opportunity to regulate and are starting to make noises about doing so. This past summer, federal regulators announced plans to "study the risks of electronic device use while driving."

Before we all go rushing to congratulate politicians on their infinite wisdom, however, we should consider the full consequences of such a ban.

First, and ultimately most important, a cellular phone ban places the legislator (yet again) into an inappropriate role - that of regulating the use of substances which may be misused. Misuse of a cellular phone such that a car accident results is the province of the courts, which may well rule that the user has been negligent and has committed a tort. The legislature is ill-suited to anticipate potential property rights violations and establish preventive regulation, and attempts at doing so usually produce a far more serious trampling of rights.

Second, hardly any of the advocates of cellular phone bans consider the extremely positive effects of cellular phone use. Two thirds of new cellular phone users say that personal security is their main reason for buying a cellular phone. Some of the proposed regulations do allow phone use in emergencies, so 911 calls on the road are not being excluded.

Yet safety is still at stake in the debate over cell phone regulations. Cellular phones also allow drivers to call ahead if they are running late, reducing the need to drive faster or more recklessly. As most of us can attest to from experience, cellular phones can also reduce the number of miles traveled by enabling drivers to acquire new information on the road that helps them reduce trips or take a more efficient route (the "honey, can you stop by the cleaners and pick up my dress" phenomenon). Reducing the distance traveled not only saves gas and reduces traffic congestion, it also reduces the total risk of an accident.

Of course, individuals are always willing to make trade_offs among safety, convenience, and other values. Certainly there is immense value in being able to conduct business or chat with a friend during otherwise unproductive time spent stuck in traffic on government-owned highways. Of course, these benefits are mostly nonquantifiable, but the estimates of their value are interesting nonetheless. A 1999 paper by Robert Hahn and Paul Tetlock of the AEI_Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies estimates that Americans value the use of cellular phones while driving at about $25 billion.

At the very least, legislators who want to regulate cellular phone use are being hypocritical. How many of them, one wonders, have tuned a radio, changed a cassette tape, or read a map while driving? Studies by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the National Public Services Research Institute indicate that all of these activities are at least as distracting as using a cellular phone. Reading a map, in fact, is twice as distracting. Eating, applying makeup, operating a CB or other radio, or scolding a child while driving can also be severely distracting, yet cellular phones are receiving a wildly disproportionate amount of attention from regulators and "public interest" organizations.

Finally, it is worth noting that applying police enforcement resources to forcing drivers to hang up their phones implies fewer resources for more serious crimes such as assault, theft, rape, or murder. Depending on the study, around 60 to 80 people die each year in car accidents associated with a driver using a phone. Using a 1998 traffic fatality statistic, this is about two hundredths of one percent of all traffic deaths.

Ironically, the enforcement activity itself can result in property damage and death. A small number of people are hurt or killed in accidents related to "rubbernecking," such as trying to see why a police cruiser is parked at the side of the road. When dealing with relatively small risk factors as we are here, an accumulation of seemingly insignificant "side effects" can overwhelm any slight benefit of the regulation.

We would all hope that drivers who use cellular phones would do so safely. Those who are concerned about cellular phone safety have full liberty to apply social pressure to inconsiderate or unsafe users. Some groups, including cellular service providers, have taken steps to educate the public in safely using a cellular phone while in the car. Yet, if history is any indication, politicians will regulate cell phone use in spite of the strong case for leaving the issue to other social institutions.

One wonders if legislators and city officials, envious of the benefits that private automobiles present over their treasured public transportation systems, might be attempting to reduce the attraction of personal cars. Perhaps it is an authentic but misguided attempt to reduce highway fatalities. If so, then like many such regulations, greater suffering could be the result. Whatever their motivations, legislators apparently stand ready to destroy much of the value of one of the greatest innovations of the last two decades.

_____________________

Timothy D. Terrell is assistant professor of economics at Wofford College and an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He can be contacted at terrelltd@wofford.edu. Further Reading: J. Robert Latham, Jr., "Cell Phone Use While Driving" (www.independent. org/tii/news/000921Latham.html); The Competitive Enterprise Institute' s Death by Regulation Project at (www.cei.org/ legal.html).

 

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