05 November 2012

Unintended Consequences

This time with texting bans:

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that 3 of every 4 states that have enacted a ban on texting while driving have seen crashes actually go up rather than down.

It's hard to pin down exactly why this is the case, but experts believe it is a result of people trying to avoid getting caught in states with stiff penalties. Folks trying to keep their phones out of view will often hold the phone much lower, below the wheel perhaps, in order to keep it out of view. That means the driver's eyes are looking down and away from the road.

The concept of risk equilibrium in regards to traffic laws has been discussed on this esteemed blog before, but it’s worth pointing out, at this time, one practical consequence:  there are  limits to attaining safety.  People, for better or worse, want some degree of risk in their lives.  We’ve required that drivers get a license and insurance; we’ve forced a ton of safety regulations on the cars they drive, and even give them speed limits.  Yet, they still crash.  Why?  Because people want some degree of risk in their life.

This is why texting bans do not work.  We’ve made driving so safe that texting while driving doesn’t seem obviously dangerous.  If driving seemed more dangerous (narrower, bumpier roads, more dangerous cars, absence of insurance mandate, etc.) people would be more engaged in driving and less likely to text.  But, given the level of safety already found in driving, it should come as no surprise that many young drivers don’t think that texting puts their life in greater danger.  Quite simply, texting doesn’t even begin to approach their risk equilibrium.

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