On February 1st, 2010, Ontario joined the more than 50 countries and jurisdictions around the world that ban the use of cell phones while driving.
The new law means it is illegal for drivers to talk, text, type, dial or e-mail; use hand-held cell phones or any other hand-held communications/entertainment devices such as game or video players. In North America – British Columbia, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have similar legislation in place.
The Ontario Ministry of Transportation says the ban is needed because driver distraction is a factor in 20% of all road accidents. One U.S. study found texting boosted the risk of a collision 23 times.
Some people aren’t in favour of yet another law that strips adults of their rights. They say that they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether or not it’s safe to make a phone call. They would argue that cell phone users, like drunk drivers are usually only caught when they’ve had some sort of accident. Picking out, one-by-one, possible reasons for having accidents and banning them is ridiculous and offensive to people who know how to drive safely. They maintain that the laws should be against people who are dangerous drivers not against specific activities.
It’s an interesting argument.
Studies are showing that there is actually no decrease in the number of collisions in jurisdictions where cell-phone usuage has been banned. And, in fact, there was never any increase in the number of accidents since the introduction of mobile technology in the first place. So why the ban?
I’m not the first one to deduce that a major cause of vehicular collisions is driver distraction in general – talking to someone next to you, eating your lunch, drinking hot coffee, screaming at the kids, changing the radio station, putting on mascara, etc.
Maybe what we really need is better educated drivers and stiffer penalties for any driver with dangerous driving habits.
Paternalistic laws quite often have a tendency to completely miss a central issue and even sometime create many enormous problems – much like overprotective parenting – while they’re trying to solve one smaller problem.
Look at what the drug laws have wrought, for instance. We make it illegal for people to take drugs that might harm them and end up creatinge an unmanageably monstrous illegal drug industry that has caused untold harm to millions.
We have several bizarre laws around prostitution in order to protect some people from some thing — although no one is too clear on who is supposed to be protected and from what. Again, these laws are protecting no one and harming many.
That’s not to say that legal paternalism is always a bad thing. When seat belt laws were first introduced a lot of people were incensed and outraged. Same thing for helmet laws for motorcyclists and for certain sporting events. Same thing for the ever-more-complex child safety seat legislations. People protested. People refused to comply and fought the fines. And now, these things are second nature. Even if they lifted the laws tomorrow, not many people would drive without wearing seat belts, or strapping their children into their protective shells. And no one in their right mind would drive a motorcycle or play hockey without a helmet.
So, in these cases, didn’t laying down the law achieve, relatively quickly, what would have taken forever to achieve through trying to educate the public on safer practices? So maybe we do need a cell phone ban to train us to remove this particular distraction while we’re driving and maybe, by extension, we’ll become aware of, and try to avoid other distractions – eventually.
The question that remains then, is: Why are we so stupid?
Why do we need government to tell us that falling off a motorcycle could hurt our heads? I don’t know, but a relatively new ethical theory called “desire utilitarianism” applied in the case of paternalism by the Atheist Ethicist may have an answer. He states in part:
Desire utilitarianism is built on a theory of behavior that says that a person always acts to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs. More specifically, a person always acts on the most and strongest of their current desires. Future desires have no effect on current behavior.
This is how addictions are possible. Addictions are particularly strong current desires that tend to thwart future desires. Because future desires have no direct effect on current behavior, it is quite possible for an agent to be fully aware of the fact that the addiction will thwart future desires, and still not be able to keep from giving in to the addiction. To beat an addiction, the agent must somehow muster current desires that outweigh the force of the addiction or weaken the addiction below the level of other current desires.
One of the implications of these principles is that the future person – the person an agent will become – is entirely incapable of defending his own interests. There is absolutely nothing he can do to bribe or coerce his earlier self into doing the right thing. Again, in the realm of morality and of law, we tend to be strictest in our impositions on people when they are dealing with those who cannot defend themselves. If the potential victim is a child or otherwise disabled, we are more inclined to impose limits on what others may do, not less.
So, the agent is fulfilling a weaker current desire at the expense of more and stronger future desires. It is not always the case that an agent does what is in his own best long-term interest.
It’s a though-provoking argument, I think. What do you think? Are you in favour government laying down laws that protect people from themselves? Do you think these laws are really designed in the best interests of citizens or are there other agendas behind them? What’s your opinion on driver/cell phone legislation ?