A Senate Plan to Ban Texting

Okay, you know how the federal “ban” on drinking under 21 is really effective? New York’s favorite Sen. Chuck Schumer wants to extend the same principle to texting. A bill introduced last week would force all states to ban texting while driving—or lose 25 percent of their annual federal highway funds.

The proposal, sponsored by a group of Democrats including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), came a day after the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a study on commercial truck drivers that found texting drivers to be 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or a near miss.

Just as states were told to raise the drinking age—which has a variety pack of problems—the Feds feel it is their moral duty to save the states from their silly ways on this issue. What Schumer and Co. aren’t likely to consider are the costs of the ban. Reason Magazine’s Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote recently:

We humans are also notably bad at comparing concentrated costs with diffuse benefits. It’s easy to tally up the costs of dialing while driving — there are accident reports and mortality figures. But it’s much harder to add up all the benefits.

Think of every carpool disaster averted, grocery list amended, or stress-relieving traffic update made possible by the use of cellphones in cars. Think of every kid who got through to his mom, every long-distance relationship maintained, every roadtrip rescued. True, these aren’t matters of life and death, but billions of tiny gains in happiness and reductions in stress are too often overlooked in public policy debates.

Not convinced? Okay, sure. It’s rare to get a bleeding heart argument from the libertarian perspective. How about some numbers:

In 1995, 13 percent of the U.S. population owned a cellphone. Today, cellphone ownership rates are well over 80 percent. In those 14 years, the annual number of motor vehicle deaths has remained eerily constant, hovering around 40,000.

These tidy numbers don’t prove that driving while simultaneously talking to your mom and texting your sister is a brilliant, risk-free idea. (Perhaps that figure could have been lower.) But the facts do suggest that the rise of the killer cellphone — and the corresponding need for government intervention — has been exaggerated. As strong as the impulse may be to pass a bunch of new laws in order to satisfy our need to do “something,” we must resist.

My guess is that the data is being interpreted in a particular way in the Virginia Tech report that may not make it the shut door, end of case story that Schumer and Wild Senatees think it is.