Distracted driving tough to enforce

By Tibor Machan: Freedom Newspapers columnist

For a while now I have observed the alarm about the use of cell phones while driving. There is hardly any doubt that doing so is hazardous.

In his Dec. 7 article for The New York Times, Matte Richtel chronicles some of this. He reports on Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92. Lucky said he knew that drivers talking on cell phones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes.

“If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,” said Lucky, now 73. “If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a CEO, you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money.”

Richtel goes back even further and reports how worries about the safety of using cell phones while driving goes back to the 1960s.

Lucky’s line of reasoning is, of course, the favorite one to produce about those who defend some private industry — what they do is recklessly promote their economic interests, never mind safety, never mind the interest of customers, never mind good sense — just pursue profit and be done with it.

But this is a caricature, born of cynical theory, not of real life. While of course most people first think of how something will help them with their projects and the pursuit of their goals, there is nothing in this that shows their indifference to and neglect of other concerns.

In the ongoing concern with the use of hand-held and hands-free cell phones while driving a car, the focus seems to be all on what such use does to one’s driving. The comparison is nearly always between such use and no distractions at all.

But what about the possibility that cell phone use in cars may not be any more hazardous than, say, changing music, tucking in the baby in the back, checking the map, looking for something in the glove compartment or having a heated discussion with one’s passenger, while driving.

Indeed, this is probably true but not easily tested and confirmed (or refuted).

Imposing restrictions on drivers concerning these other possible distractions would, no doubt, be somewhat problematic since all those are mainly personal distractions and no big industry can be held complicit. Deep pockets are missing there, too.

All such activities, while driving, require attention, and concentrating on driving at the same time can be challenging.

Forgive me my suspicious nature, but am I seeing here the eagerness of some political and bureaucratic types to rush in and micromanage us.

Given how silent they appear to be about how cell phone use in cars compares with all those other, more customary distractions, I think my suspicion isn’t ill founded.

Words to the wise should suffice: It may not be about safety as much as it is about control, about the age-old government habit.