Sunday, July 19, 2009

The risks of cell phones and driving

It's nice to see the NY Times giving major attention to the risks of driving while using cell phones to talk or text. They even provide a little game to demonstrate how lousy you are at multitasking.

Distracted drivers are a serious concern. Christopher Hill, featured in the story, killed a woman because he was using his phone. He got off easy. Had he been drunk, and using a phone while driving has similar effects on reactions, he would be in jail, lose his license, possibly lose his job, be publicly shamed and generally treated like a dirtbag criminal. But since he was using his phone while trying to let his neighbor know about a great piece of furniture (how thoughtful), he only got a misdemeanor. Now he only sometimes uses his phone while driving. Lucky us.

The Oklahoma majority leader brought up a common defense of cell use while driving, which is he has a really long commute and he uses the phone the whole time. This brings up a concern I have and that is our cars are too comfortable. That may sound ridiculous, but consider that many of the efficiency gains in automobile engines have been minimized by the additions of creature comforts. A lot of cars are nicer than the houses of the people who drive them. Nice seats, top notch stereos, air conditioning (or heat), private space (think bigger cars), etc. I don't think that nicer cars have caused more driving directly, but I do think that nice cars make longer commuting distances acceptable, or even enjoyable. I doubt that Oklahoma lawmaker would drive two hours each way if he had a stick-shift, spotty AC and only a radio with cheap speakers. However, using cell phones while driving is one way that driving time, which really should be seen as non-productive or less-productive time, becomes productive time. And people generally try to increase their productive time.

Pat Mokhtarian at UC Davis has explored the positive utility of travel and found evidence that travel is not solely a derived demand. This has implications for what types of cars should be built, and what incentives should be designed to encourage less driving. How utilitarian should cars be? I don't think we want to all drive Ladas, but we shouldn't think of our driving commutes as productive time that should be encouraged through cell use.
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