More laws aren’t the answer

Published 11:39 am Friday, September 24, 2010

We’ve all seen examples of what has come to be known as distracted driving. My own favorite sample came where westbound Interstate 694 in the north metro area peels off to the left to become I-494 and to the right to become I-94.

There, where the junction forms a sort of “Y” shape, the small sedan I was following stared to edge left onto 494 as I started to edge right onto 94. Suddenly, the sedan careened across the no-man’s-land between the arms of the Y, right back in front of me and onto 94.

A moment later, I passed the car and saw that the young driver was on his cell phone —apparently not bothered enough by his near-miss to end the call.

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This is the kind of thing that causes people angry — although not as angry as when an actual accident ensues.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking out of the grocery store with my evening groceries when a woman cruised past me very, very slowly, looking for a parking spot as she talked on her phone. A little further down, another man watched her creep by and yelled, “Get off the phone and pay attention to your driving!”

I guess he’d had some near-misses, too.

It’s that kind of anger that has state and federal regulators anxious to “do something” about the distracted driving problem. Doing something, for them, means passing laws and writing regulations.

The trouble is that these rules will make no difference.

Take Minnesota’s law that forbids drivers to text. It’s a well-intended law and it looks good on paper. But how many people have stopped texting because of it? Maybe a dozen.

Look, if you’re gutsy enough to stare at a tiny phone screen while driving, you’re probably not going to be particularly worried about a law that says you can’t text. If you’ve thought about it at all, you have probably calculated that it’s terribly unlikely you’ll get caught – unless you crash which, of course, you already believe won’t happen.

The people who follow the law probably do so more out from a sense of caution than for fear of a ticket. I don’t text when I drive because it scares the heck out of me, not because it’s the law.

Driving is horribly dull, and while there are relatively safe remedies – CD’s, talk radio, books on disc – they are not always or entirely satisfying. Auto manufacturers know this, and that’s why they’re adding things like voice-directed internet connections to their higher-end cars. Drivers crave a distraction from the boring routine of sitting behind the wheel looking at concrete or bumpers – and they are always going to be looking for relief.

So legislate away. It’s not going to fix the problem.

The only real solutions would be tremendously unpopular. For starters, give people a reason to drive less, because less driving will mean far less property damage, far fewer injuries and far fewer deaths. How does one encourage people not to drive? Provide good alternatives, such as useful public transportation, or design cities that don’t force people to use their cars for simple acts like getting groceries.

On the flip side, making driving more interesting would also do the trick. The extreme safety of most American roads — broad, obstacle-free rights of way, thoughtful stop lights, impeccable grooming, smooth surfaces – adds to boredom and a feeling of safety. Maybe if driving took a little more attention all the time, drivers would pay more attention. (This is not a practical solution, however, since it flies in the face of our national obsession with safety.)

What isn’t going to work is telling people to do something which flies in the face of nature, because those sorts of well-intentioned, top-down rules and laws are almost never effective at changing people’s behavior.

As long as people are forced – by choice, by design and by tradition – to lot endless hours in cars and trucks, they’re going to find ways to distract themselves.