Opinion

Inconvenient truths to a ban on texting while driving

In Ohio, heated debate accompanied the move to ban texting while driving. That surprised me. Who could oppose such a thing? Ah, but then the law of unintended consequences put a whole new light on the controversy.

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    A phone is held in a car in Brunswick, Maine. Op-ed contributor Jim Sollisch writes about a ban on texting while driving: 'It's hard to see the downside of such a thing. Unless, of course, you’re a liberty-loving, anti-government type. Then there’s a downside to any legislation except legislation that repeals already-existing legislation.' But wait...maybe the anti-ban people are right.
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Ohio is the latest state to propose a ban on texting while driving. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. Media outlets in the state report there was a heated debate on the Senate floor. Really? Who could possibly be opposed to a ban on texting while driving? Even AT&T and Verizon don’t object. It’s hard to see the downside.

Unless, of course, you’re a liberty-loving, anti-government type. Then there’s a downside to any legislation except legislation that repeals already-existing legislation.

These folks should form a political party called “The Slippery Slope Party” because that’s their argument against almost any law restricting almost any activity. If we ban texting while driving, then soon we’ll be banning eating while driving. Before you know it, you won’t be able to switch stations on your radio. And you know where that will lead: to a totalitarian state.

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As much as I’d like to rant against the slippery-slopers some more, I found another argument against banning texting while driving. This one, based on a few studies and a bit of counter-intuition, is far more interesting.

The argument goes like this: People are so addicted to their phones that a ban won’t stop most people from texting while driving. Instead they’ll put the phones deeper in their laps to avoid detection and the result will be an increase in accidents.

As crazy as it sounds, there is some statistical support for this. The Highway Data Loss Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that in 3 of 4 states that enacted texting bans, accidents actually increased after the ban went into effect.

The study analyzed insurance claims for accidents in four states – California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington – during several months before the ban and several months after. In Minnesota, accidents actually increased 9 percent after the texting ban went into effect. The study also looked at states that had not enacted bans as a control.

The law apparently at play here isn’t a texting ban – it’s the law of unintended consequences. Edward Tenner, whose name usually follows or precedes the words “unintended consequences,” wrote a book on the subject a dozen years ago called “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.” He makes the case that for every action there are predictable reactions and, more often than you think, reactions that are completely unpredictable.

Take football helmets. Seems difficult to argue against the idea that better helmets would lead to fewer head injuries. But the truth is just the opposite. Better helmets have led to more reckless, aggressive play and an epidemic of concussions that’s been well documented in recent years. In fact, rugby players who wear no head gear suffer fewer concussions than football players. Perversely, the way to reduce concussions may be to ban helmets, not make them better.

An unintended consequence of technology has been the blurring of the boundaries between work and home. Smartphones and laptops were supposed to help us get our work done faster, but study after study shows that most of us work longer because we check email at the dinner table, during our kids’ school concerts, and at the beach. 

But let’s get back to where we started: I’d love to take the counter-intuitive side here and make a case against Ohio’s coming ban on texting while driving, but I can’t.

If we repeal the expected ban, that act will have its own set of unintended consequences: More people may believe that texting while driving is safe, which could lead to more people texting, which could lead to even more accidents.

Ah, the unintended consequence of unintended consequences.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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