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Christmastime for the Telecommunications Industry

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distracted driving, regulation
So it wasn't even the first day of Christmas and the American telecommunications lobby's true love -- the Federal government -- brought to it a gift most fine when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that he would be overruling the barely week old recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that the use of all mobile devices (you know, cell phones) be outlawed in moving vehicles. As hard evidence mounts that the use of such devices can be directly linked to hundreds of thousands of accidents and the numbers of road fatalities multiply exponentially, it hadn't seemed like such a bad idea to me.

Of course, whether or not you think such a ban would have been a good thing, you ought not delude yourself into thinking it was ever going to happen. You can safely bet your last dollar that if LaHood hadn't stepped in, we'd have been treated to an absurd theater piece in Washington, running months if not years, replete with hysterical whinging and countless inferior monologues about how banning motorists from using their phones while driving the United States was going the way of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Then the telecommunications industry's Secret Santa (okay, not so secret), the United States Congress, would have stepped in to kill the rule, presumably in a gaily festooned piece of legislation that would have tied the repeal of the no-phone rule to baubles like the continued existence of child labor laws, prohibitions against clubbing baby seals in drug-free school zones and federal support for traffic signals, which everyone knows are invidious threats to the American people's honest expression of their freewill and their God-given right to turn their destinies over to the Lord completely.

As a hypothetical issue, which as I say is all it ever could have been, this remains, however, an important topic, worthy of further discussion. It's not just phones; drivers are undoubtedly getting more distracted. New car owners' manuals bulge ever more each year as cars become garlanded with increasingly copious information and entertainment functions (each distracting and confusing in its own way), for the primary purpose of helping car makers and their suppliers compete with each other, as well as the cornucopia of electronic devices that are said to have stolen consumers and their affections (especially those of the young, the buyers of tomorrow's Toyota Avalons and Chevy Equinoxes) away from car dealerships and into Best Buys and the whole sedentary, non-motorized world of the Internet.

I don't pretend to know what the answer is but personally I think people should talk a lot less on the phone while driving and should never text. I, who have been guilty of serial mistakes in judgment in this arena, feel poorly for the lousy example I set my children in years past by multi-tasking while driving. And as someone who's been rear-ended twice in the last year by distracted drivers, and once got T-boned by a girl on a cell phone who made a left-turn through a light directly into the side of my car, I ought to know better. I agree entirely with the NTSB officials who've characterized it as addictive behavior. Right now, I'm taking it one day at a time, trying to keep the phone out of reach. It's going pretty well, phoning and texting are way down, though, if I am to be completely honest, relapse is only one ultra-important business call I don't want to miss away. One which could never be remotely worth it if anything went wrong. The whole thing kind of makes me hate myself. If I have to be an addict, why can't I just be a pothead -- or serial consumer of licorice -- instead?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has indicated he will be overruling the NTSB's recommendation. (Flickr Photo courtesy of "thisisbossi")But amidst this moral morass, I have to say that many of the arguments marshaled against bans on cell phone use in cars are pretty shoddy. Within hours of the NTSB issuing their unexpected recommendation, I received an urgent press release from a concerned citizens' group who call themselves the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "Gov't Ban on Cell Phones While Driving Won't Improve Safety." For your edification, I present it here in its entirety:

Washington, DC, December 14, 2011 – Citing concern over “distracted driving,” the National Transportation Safety Board called on all states to ban on [sic] cell phone use and texting while driving. CEI experts called such a ban unnecessary and intrusive.

“Police already have more than enough reasons to stop cars,” said Sam
 Kazman, CEI General Counsel. “Absent hard evidence that a cell phone ban would improve traffic safety, NTSB has no business recommending such a ban.”

“The recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board ought to be ignored,” said Marc Scribner, a CEI transportation policy expert. “Such a ban would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. What is even more troubling is how NTSB implies that mobile phone use is somehow the most frequent source of driver distraction. Drivers conversing with passengers was a factor in nearly five times as many crashes as mobile phone use, including
 phone conversations, dialing and texting. Note that NTSB has not called for a
ban on speaking in cars.

”
CEI technology policy expert Ryan Radia has pointed to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that concluded that state texting bans
 might actually increase automobile accidents."

Contact:
 Christine Hall, (202) 331.2258

You can expect to see these arguments and ones like them in the months and years ahead, as this debate can only continue -- at least until the skyrocketing accident and fatality rates become the underpinning for a giant citizen-financed, infrastructure industry-friendly effort to automate cars and highways, leaving us free to shop, social network and otherwise distract ourselves in our cars to our hearts' (and corporate overlords') utter content.

Now, the CEI arguments may be lame -- in fairness, they'd only had a couple of hours to prepare them, after all, as the NTSB move surprised everyone -- and so are necessarily the intellectual equivalent of icing the puck in hockey: Change the subject, try to shift the blame. Conflate, remonstrate, a little huff and a little puff and hopefully the momentum changes.

But there are other recurrent ones, seemingly more coherent, but which upon closer examination don't really hold water either. For instance, the whole police state argument. As it stands, the cops can pull you over if you have a single license plate lamp out (hardly a safety issue) and if they like they may tear your car apart while you wait. Concerned about our dystopian police state future, Competitive Enterprise Institute? When do I get your hot fax about the Obama administration's new rules on indefinite detentions?

The safety argument being bandied about -- what if it's an emergency? -- is a non-starter for me as well. First, if it's an emergency, you just might want to stop to make your call. Second, if you really can't, you can explain it to the officer who pulls you over as you might explain that the reason you exceeded the speed limit was that you were rushing the pregnant woman sitting next to you to the hospital. Extenuating circumstances in the case of cell phone use while driving are always going to be a lot more plausible than ones you might put out there for, say, driving drunk.

One of the other more prevalent arguments -- that you can't stop people from using their phones if they really want to -- doesn't figure, either. You can't stop people from driving while impaired or with their eyes shut but that doesn't mean you have to legalize the behavior. What's different here?

In addition to the traditional barge-load of tautologies, logical inconsistencies and keyword alarmism, there is of course available to the defenders of unfettered mobile device use The Big Lie. For instance, CEI's suggestion that in-car texting bans may actually increase accidents. How does that work?

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Clause. And for the telcoms of the world, it truly is a Merry Christmas.
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distracted driving, regulation

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