The Free Market Knows How to Save Lives from Distracted Drivers. It Just Chooses Not to Act.

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I want to make sure you didn’t miss Matt Richtel’s stunning New York Times story in the media juggernaut’s run-up to the debate. It’s about texting and distracted driving, and the first paragraph is horrifying:

The court filings paint a grisly picture: As Ashley Kubiak sped down a Texas highway in her Dodge Ram truck, she checked her iPhone for messages. Distracted, she crashed into a sport utility vehicle, killing its driver and a passenger and leaving a child paralyzed.

Richtel continues, “With driving fatalities rising at levels not seen in 50 years, the growing incidence of distracted driving is getting part of the blame.” In his report, AT&T admits that texting while driving “has addictive qualities, meaning drivers cannot help themselves.” As any pedestrian commuter in a major American city can tell you, the driving-while-distracted epidemic is out of hand. Spend more than five minutes a day on city sidewalks and you’ll soon have a story about nearly being killed in a crosswalk by a driver who was senselessly taking a corner while staring at his iPhone.

This is a problem that is not going away, and the free market will not solve it. In fact, the free market has already devised a solution. Richtel explains that Apple has already patented software which would identify when a phone user is driving and disable text messaging and other apps that ping drivers, who often can’t bring themselves to resist an alert sound. They’ve had this software for years. But they haven’t released it to the public. Why? Well, as road safety consultant David Teater says:

“If you’re at Apple or you’re at Samsung, do you want to be the first to block texting and driving?” he said. “A customer might say, ‘If Apple does it, then my next phone is a Samsung.’”

This is the free market at work.

But of course the libertarians over at Reason.com are doing whatever they do when the free market fails to solve a problem: try to convince their readers there’s no problem at all. In a post titled “New Round of Fearmongering Over Texting and Driving” from earlier this month, Ed Krayewski argues with the sentiment that more people are dying. Krayewski points out that traffic deaths have declined since 1985. While he allows that “technological advancements…have made cars safer to drive” in the intervening 30 years, he concludes that “the numbers don’t support the idea that smartphones are contributing to a rise in traffic fatalities, nor the contention that catching so-called distracted drivers ought to be a high law enforcement priority.”

I wonder what Krayewski would consider to be a priority. Mahita Gajanan at Time noted back in August that…

…A new report from the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group devoted to using research and data to prevent deaths, found that fatalities from traffic incidents were 9% higher through the first six months of 2016 than during the same time period last year.

And Angie Schmidt wrote for Streetsblog USA that traffic fatalities “hit a seven-year high in 2015.” And while every method of transportation saw fatality increases in 2014, pedestrians and bicyclists saw the largest rise, according to this graph from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

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Now, of course we can’t attribute all of these fatalities to distracted driving, but it seems likely that distracted driving is responsible for some of them. Most of the year-to-year conditions—traffic laws, the technological advancements that Karayewski cites in his post—tend to lean toward fewer or similar results. There is no way to definitively prove a connection between distracted driving and the increases in fatalities two years ago with the data available now, but smartphone adoption has increased dramatically over the last four years. If I were investigating the rise in traffic fatalities, distracted driving would certainly be an issue I would want to examine.

But that’s not even my point. When you get into a pedantic argument with libertarians about statistics, you’ve already lost. At issue is the whole libertarian philosophy, which, as always, is predictably glib and doesn’t stand up to any sort of serious philosophical investigation. How many fatalities would Krayewski and his libertarian crowd consider to be too many? How many people would have to die before the free market finally steps in and corrects the situation?

The goal should always be zero fatalities, even as we keep in mind that accidents, realistically, can and will happen. (There is an organization devoted to the idea of zero traffic fatalities, and they do excellent work.) The whole concept of a functioning society is that it operates with the public good in mind; the moment when governments decide to willfully abandon citizens to die is the moment when you see the social contract begin to break down. Yes, people die. No, we don’t always get it right. But to give up trying? That’s downright monstrous.

Let’s be clear that I don’t love every regulation. To point out a recent example, this new California law about collectible autographs, for example, was undoubtedly created with good intentions in mind—an attempt to curb forgery—but it seems to create unintended consequences that would hurt small businesses like bookstores, collectors, and antiques dealers. But to look at a clear and obvious public health risk like distracted driving and then to use it as an example of why the market should be allowed to run free strikes me as dangerous and poorly considered. It’s obvious that the free market isn’t going to save the lives of pedestrians from distracted drivers; the businesses in question have a solution to the problem and they just choose not to employ it. Moments like this one are when the government should intercede on behalf of the public good.

 

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.