LaHood looking for ways to disable cell phones in cars

posted at 3:35 pm on November 16, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

Remember, in Hopenchange, everything not expressly permitted will be outlawed.  In an attempt to deal with the supposed epidemic of distracted drivers, especially younger drivers, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that the Obama administration will review its options in blocking cell phone use in cars:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said using a cell phone while driving is so dangerous that devices may soon be installed in cars to forcibly stop drivers — and potentially anyone else in the vehicle — from using them.

“There’s a lot of technology out there now that can disable phones and we’re looking at that,” said LaHood on MSNBC. LaHood said the cellphone scramblers were one way, and also stressed the importance of “personal responsibility.”

The statement came during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, when Joe Scarborough argued that the government should mandate the installation of scrambler transmitters in new automobiles.  LaHood liked the idea:

“I think it will be done,” said LaHood. “I think the technology is there and I think you’re going to see the technology become adaptable in automobiles to disable these cell phones. We need to do a lot more if were going to save lives.”

This is frightfully dense in a number of different ways.  Let’s count them up, shall we?

  • The scrambler would also affect the passengers in a car that want to use their cell phones, which doesn’t do anything to improve public safety.
  • The presence of multitudinous scramblers in autos driving in a city will likely render cell phones used by pedestrians useless as well, or at least unreliable.
  • Adding more required equipment to cars will make them more expensive, and increase the value of used cars without the scramblers.
  • People who want to make calls from their cars or allow their passengers to do so will likely hold onto current vehicles longer.
  • Anything installed in a car can be disabled by the owner, especially electronics.  Will car owners have to submit to random searches, or annual verification of scrambler functionality?  Will the federal government make that yet another unfunded mandate on the states?
  • People also get distracted by eating, reading printed material, and applying make-up.  Shall we ban drive-through restaurants, newspapers, and cosmetics, too?

And those are just the practical considerations.  There are other problems with this as well, chief among them that it appears to be a solution in search of a problem.  A study released today by the CDC shows that auto-related deaths of younger drivers have dropped 36% annually over a five-year period despite increased use of cell phones:

Motor-vehicle accidents — not drugs or diseases — are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States. Despite alcohol, distraction and lack of experience contributing to the causes of accidents for this age group, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported a decline in fatal crashes among these youngest drivers.

As part of its study, the CDC analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) Fatality Analysis Report System (FARS). Reviewing fatality data for 2004 through 2008, the CDC examined reports of the 9,494 fatal crashes involving drivers aged 16 and 17 to identify trends as well as assess risks. Of the more than 11,000 people who died in these crashes, over 37 percent were drivers aged 16 or 17. The data also revealed that fatal traffic crashes had declined by about 36 percent annually for drivers in this age group.

The CDC thinks the decline in teen traffic statistics can be attributed to several factors. Decreases in travel as a result of rising gasoline prices and adverse economic conditions are two of those major factors. In troubled economic times, youth have limited funds and cut back on travel and/or delay obtaining their driver’s licenses.

While the information seems to indicate that teen drivers are now safer drivers, distracted and impaired driving still remain major safety and public health issues associated with our nation’s younger drivers. Newswires regularly report cases of teen crashes linked to texting or cell-phone use, and recent studies reveal that teens are texting more than ever before. With more than 20 percent of traffic accidents linked to distracted driving, youth texting habits are more concerning.

Allow me to translate that last paragraph.  Despite the anecdotal data we read in the newspapers, we are unable to draw a statistical relationship between cell phone use and vehicular deaths — but we want to talk about it anyway.

Finally, we come to the most basic point, which is that traffic law enforcement is not a federal jurisdiction.  It’s a state and local jurisdiction.   If a state wants to force car buyers to pay for scrambling equipment, they have the authority to do so, as Californians well know from their mandated smog-reduction equipment.  The Obama administration wants to dictate choices to Americans, and this is just another nanny-state intrusion into the lives of citizens from Washington.

Drivers have plenty of distractions.  Part of learning to drive responsibly is to manage them, and local and state law enforcement can handle the failures as they arise.   The only way to eliminate distracted driving is to eliminate driving itself.


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