Home > The New York Times, unintended consequences > Distractions of Attentive Government

Distractions of Attentive Government

Public safety is a proper role of government. I can empathize with those concerned with limiting the dangers of distracted driving even if I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of new laws to prohibit distractions such as cell phone use. But even if you agree that government should pursue such goals, today’s New York Times story on “distracted pedestrians” reminds us that sometimes we’d be better off with more inattentive legislators.

That is the theory of several lawmakers pushing the latest generation of legislation dealing with how devices like iPods and cellphones affect traffic safety. The ubiquity of interactive devices has propelled the science of distraction — and now efforts to legislate against it — out of the car and into the exercise routine.

In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”

Politicians’ imagined need to solve every problem becomes pernicious when they don’t weigh the consequences of their own action. As much as I’m receptive to the libertarian critique of nanny-state government, the need for personal responsibility, and the state’s misallocated focus on trivial problems like exercisers’ music I think their emphasis is sometimes misplaced.

Governments shouldn’t not ban ipods because it’s runners own fault if they get hit by a car or because government inherently shouldn’t treat citizens like children but because the state needs to be sure their attempt to solve one problem won’t be replaced by other problems of indeterminate repercussion.

In this case, it is not even clear pedestrians distracted by technology is what is causing the uptick in fatalities. The increase is contained to just “the first six months of 2010” among a national drop going back years. News flash: people listening to music and talking on their phones while on a jog isn’t that novel.  So banning the activity might not only do very little to solve “the problem” but any minor benefit might result in less exercise, less efficiency, and less enjoyment. Can anyone in America really argue right now that our problem is too much excerise?

  1. zach
    January 28, 2011 at 9:17 am

    as a person who gets around in a city by bicycle on a daily basis, i am totally in favor of a ban on cell phone use for cyclists. not only do those who talk on the phone while driving put my life in danger on a daily basis, but they certainly don’t need any help doing so.

  2. January 28, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    I’m not denying that their is some danger associated with running or riding a bike while distracted. That’s actually a major part of my point. From a policymaking point of view, legislators (and people like yourself) only factor in that aspect without calculating the full cost and benefits of a prohibition.

    You see: riding a bike on a phone/listening to music = danger. I see: riding a bike on a phone/listening to music = danger + prohibiting phones/ipods = less exercise, less enjoyment, more inefficiency, a shift in resources from elsewhere to enforcement, etc. Also don’t discount that if less people ride bikes, there will be less demand for bike friendly policies which add to bike safety. In sum, it is unclear whether prohibition will lead to greater or less wellbeing. When a calculation is that uncertain, the government should be biased toward freedom and inaction.

    Additionally, do they really put your “life in danger”? Your life!? Is it really that dangerous – for someone who bikes “on a daily basis” you’ve seemed to subconsciously calculate that the risk isn’t that forbidding.

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