For Your Own Good

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 ?


40 responses to “For Your Own Good

  1. Laws that ban the use of cell phones while driving, mandate helmet use on motorcycles, and force people to use seat belts are absolutely needed.

  2. I didn’t really have an opinion on cell phone use while driving until I saw an Oprah episode. 3 people that swore up and down how well they could text and drive were given road tests while texting and not texting and it really opened their (and my) eyes. Not sure about just talking on the phone except you have to dial and whatnot which is just like texting. I only talk on the phone in the car on certain long dull stretches of roads, but never on the highway or in traffic. And I would never try to text while driving because I have to really concentrate to do that while standing still in my house.

    I like that future me vs. current me concept. Future me that will be at the beach in May should come here and make me exercise.

  3. Ironically, I might see 2-3 Oprah episodes year (while sick or on vacation). But I happened to see that episode too.

    And I must say Thank God for OPRAH!

    Yep…forget drug addiction, alcholism or spousal abuse or teen pregancy.

    Nope…texting while driving is apparently one of the biggest problems in North America today.

    nd OPRAH, on her self-appointed crusade, is going to SAVE us from all that!

    You GO, girl!

    Soon, we won’t be allowed to eat in our cars. Or drink Tim Hortons. Or listen to screaming kids in the back seat, and it will be illegal to drive if you’ve had less than 7 hours of sleep.

    Not to mention they’re already trying to ban trans-fats, and make us wear helmets on ski hills and not play dodge-ball in schools.

    Soon, Big Brother will have protected us against all the nasty boogey-men out there, and the world will be warm, fuzzy safe place.

  4. haha, i saw that oprah episode as well.
    i like laws that keep me safe from others. i have seen some crazy shit looking down from the (relative)safety of my OC seat. makeup application, shaving, reading…..but texting is really bad, and talking on the phone is so distracting.
    i also like the no smoking laws we have.
    i guess i like being told what to do.

  5. I didn’t see Oprah, but I have seen plenty of people *walking on the sidewalk* while on the phone, and those people swerve and slow down and speed up with no rhyme or reason.

    I’m not arguing walking while talking on a phone should be illegal, though. Unless while you’re walking and phoning you’re also controlling a several ton chunk of metal at high speeds.

  6. They are planning on banning cell phone use when driving in Manitoba as well but they want people to have time to adjust to the horror of not being “connected” every moment of the day/night.

    The Manitoba government has said that it will be legal to have a pay phone booth in your car though. So people can keep informing their loved ones when they are getting close to the mall or for discussing other equally critical information..

    We are quite liberal here. Well except for our government being NDP..

  7. I can’t help but wonder about some of the stats coughed up by the safety nazis whenever they go on a crusade.
    23 times more “risk” accidents means one of 3 things.

    1/ the risk was minimal in the first place.
    2/ Nearly everyone is at risk now
    3/ some statistician got paid to make the world scary again.
    Yes you’re correct that no one would dare go without a baby seat now but lets face it all of us in “middle age” did and did so quite successfully.
    Most of these laws are designed not for the safety of the occupants/ users but for insurance companies.
    If you crash now there is little chance of minor injury and surprisingly insurance is cheaper if you die than if you get a serious injury which of course will still happen at exorbitant speeds.
    Now tell me why every car being produced today can exceed the speed limit by 80 to 100 %

  8. I have no problem with the cell phone ban since many people lack common sense when it comes to safety. We have all seen people reading a book slapped to the steering wheel while driving 120km on the highway and applying makeup etc. I suspect texting or cell phone usage is more of a contributing problem when it comes to accidents/crashes than we realize. It is easy to spot a driver that is distracted using a cell phone…especially when you are driving behind a weaving car, or totally unaware of a light change etc. Pull up alongside them at a red light or drive past them on the highway and sure enough, they are chatting away on a phone or texting away. I think it is a good thing. Bring it on.

  9. I think it’s a grey area where individual rights impinge on the rights of others. If someone wants to ride a motorcycle with the wind streaming through his or her hair/sideburns/beard/whatever until they take a corner too fast and become an organ donor, well so be it. But when someone’s distraction could cause an accident affecting other people, then that’s when the state should step in.

    You say, “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. ” I have known people who firmly believe that they are perfectly capable of driving safely after drinking more than 5 beers. Alcohol clouds your judgment and slows your reactions. Texting takes your attention off the road for more time than just talking to a passenger. Both are dangerous to other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

    Does everyone have to be connected 24/7? Will you die if you aren’t able to text someone until you get home? Because someone could die if you’re texting on the Queensway and don’t notice that all the cars in front of you have come to a stop. And it might be you.

  10. Alison brings up a good point.

    If someone wants to do something, that ONLY affects themselves (like riding without a helmet, smoking, eating fatty foods, etc..), then they should be allowed to. It’s nobody’s damned business but their own.

    Of course, you’ll get the knee-jerk reaction of the Do-Gooders, saying “Well, then why should my tax dollars pay for their health care?”

    Okay. Fair enough. But in that case, then you should ALLOW the smokers and non-helmet-wearers the option to get their own private health insurance, so they can pay for the consequqnces of their own lifestyle.

    But of course, if you did this, the same Do-Gooders will scream about a “two-tier” health care system, and that nobody should be allowed to do this.

    You can’t win.

    Whether it affects others or not…the Do-Gooders will always be there to dictate how you should live your life.

  11. Friar – with smoking, that only affects the person if they do it away from others. But that’s not the point.

    I think that the law should be such that you can drive while using a cell phone, but if you are caught doing so much as failing to signal to turn (all the way up to causing a collision), the fine for that violation should skyrocket. That way people who actually are capable of driving safely while talking on a cell phone can still do so.

    That that driving laws are enforced very much in Ottawa to begin with, though, which makes me question the effectiveness of the ban at all.

    – RG>

  12. Screw it. Too many people die while driving. We should just ban automobiles.
    It’ll work as well as banning talking on the phone will.

  13. Oh and I forgot to say that Texas passed a law against cell phone use in school zones and my daughter already got a ticket for that. No surprise there.

  14. 2 things.

    Not wearing a helmet while skiing or riding anything is stoopid…Friar, buy a fscking helmet, I’d miss you if you were gone.

    Not wearing a helmet and getting hit by a car whose driver is on the cell? Nothing to do with helmet or not.

    The only way we get people to change is by forcing them.

    OK, three things.


  15. Sorry Eye-thai-guy – I’m gonna declare bollshit on you.
    I’ve skied for 40 years without a helmet and NEVER have had an accident. I periodically (When it is legal to do so) ride my motorcycles without helmets.
    I accept the risk that that entails and make my choice.
    I think its absolutely stupid that you can jump out of an airplane at 10000 feet but you have to where a helmet. Pants of course are optional (
    Otherwise – just go live in a fucking bubble. Guys like you are taking away my right to choose “for my own good” .
    Interestingly enough a few years ago the french gov’t tried to outlaw the use of “power take-off shafts” on farms and farm tractors. That lasted about 15 minutes when it was pointed out that farmers recognize that these shafts are dangerous, that farming ITSELF is a dangerous profession, but that there was no other ECONOMICAL way to power implements.

  16. Lebowski – “I’ve skied for 40 years without a helmet and NEVER have had an accident.” This is a fallacy. Helmets only help you after you’ve fallen , so it’s a truism that if you’ve never fallen, a helmet will not have prevented any injury to you (which is why I’m not too hot on making them mandatory myself).

    However, the fact is that some people (of all levels of experience and skill) do fall, and the fact that you haven’t fallen is likely more due to luck than to any other factor (particularly the factor of whether or not you wear a helmet).

    I’m vehemently against mandatory helmet legislation for cyclists, but I still wear a bike helmet.

    – RG>

  17. Dr, Monkey – Okay then. It’s bizarre though isn’t it that we’re never too old to have to have someone else tell us what to do so we don’t do something stupid?

    Geewits – Texting while driving or even talking on the phone seems like way too much of a distraction for me. I gotta hand it to people who think it’s perfectly okay to take their eyes off the road for long periods of time. And ya, too bad present us never listens to future us, isn’t it?

    Friar – Did you just confess to watching Oprah 2-3 times a year? Exactly how sick ARE you when this happens? I’ve been home sick on occasion and have never felt the need to be comforted at Oprah’s warm, ample bosom. Do your friends know you do this?

    Meanie – OMG!!! This is not the Oprah column. Everyone stop talking about Oprah RIGHT NOW! I guess everyone likes being told what to do, or they wouldn’t watch Oprah in the first place. I’m always astonished that there are enough people who are so stupid that we all need to be told what to do….okay maybe “astonished” is too strong, but still.

    Dave – But why don’t people understand this all on their own? And why are people complaining about this law saying they’re perfectly safe to drive while texting?

    Glen – I think all the other provinces will be coming on board in the next year or so. It seems common sense to pretty much focus on driving while you’re driving, unless one of your passengers goes into labour or something, in which case you should pull over.

    Dave1949 – This is why I asked that question about “alternate agendas” because I’m cynical and just don’t fully believe that the government does stuff just for our well-being.

    MM – Then maybe they should ban book reading, make-up application and shaving and stuff too while driving. There are a million and one ways to be a dangerous driver – choosing the cell phone thing seems a little arbitrary.

    Alison – Very true. Even the helmet laws protect more than just the motorcyclist. A dead guy on the road could cause other accidents. It costs the taxpayer money to get him scraped up and seen to. He could tie up traffic which could prevent someone else from getting to an emergency, etc., etc.

    Friar – No man is an island. Everything you do affects other people in some way. You need society to function in your life – you need other people, services, etc., so I guess you also have to take the fact that they get to dictate your life a little.

    Grouchy – As you say, there are already laws and fines when you actually get into an accident. Are the cops going to be out looking for people on cell phones?

    Lebowski – I’m totally on board with that suggestion. Only people who can prove through rigorous testing should be allowed to drive.

    Geewits – Is that while she was driving or just walking around?

    Eyeteaguy – How far do we take that in trying to establish a perfect, healthy, safe society?

    Lebowski – Ha ha ha – changing the shape of the hot dog. If they make it flat and round, isn’t that just balogna? I sure hope whatever bubble they assign me to has a beach (shallow water of course) and some non-UV dangerous sunshine. Also re: penises – people shouldn’t be putting those nasty things in their mouths anyway. No telling where they’ve been

  18. I disagree…it isn’t arbitrary. So many people rely on cell phones; even children use them in grade schools. Business, texting, and a need for constant communication makes cell phone use an extreme and popular common distraction.

  19. If we want to maintain a perfectly safe, healthy society, then theoretically, we shouldn’t do sports.

    No matter how safe you try to make it, no matter how much safety equipment you use, people will still break bones, skin needs, get stitches, or worse.

    So lets’ get rid of baseball, soccer, and hockey.

    And especially high-risk sports, like downhill skiing and mountain climbing.

    Even cross country skiing is bad (I personally know two people who suffered serious fractures).

    Instead, we should just walk on treadmill for so many hours a week, if we want to maintain our cardio fitness.

    We should also ban motorcycles, and put regulators on cars to prevent them from going more than 60 km/hr, and prevent private citizens from getting their pilots licence.

    Oh, yeah. And outlaw potato chips.

    That way, nobody will get hurt.

  20. Eye-thai-guy…. Darwin has been gone for a very long time. The only thing he is taking care of are worms.
    Do you mean “Natural Selection”?
    I think that “FOR YOUR OWN GOOD” you should refrain from further comment…. but then again jackasses like you believe in restricting the rights of others because you are under the impression that you know so much better what is good for us then we know ourselves.

  21. MM – You’re right in that there are a lot of people using electronic devices while driving. But if you believe the statistics – banning cell phone use while driving hasn’t made a difference in the accident rates at all in the places where this has been in effect for a while. So it’s bad drivers in general or distractions in general who are involved in accidents maybe? This is why I’m thinking just banning this particular activity might not be all that useful. Though I totally agree that people shouldn’t be talking on the phone or watching movies or playing video games while they’re driving.

    Friar – There are a lot of sharp corners in my home and when I eat and read at the same time I sometimes miss my mouth and stick the fork in the side of my face. Also, my stove is hot and when I get something out of the freezer and my hands aren’t completely dry they get stuck to stuff and it hurts. People should also watch out for new shoes because they can cause blisters. And remember, most accidents happen in the bathroom, so stay out of there.

    Eyeteaguy & Lebowski – Behave!

  22. Wow. Some fightin’ words here today.


    I’ve been driving for 24 years. Never been in an accident.

    Should I have to wear a seatbelt?

    It’s my right to choose, after all.

    I’ve been driving for 24 years. Once in a while, I have driven home when I know I’d have blown above the legal limit – never had an accident – but I also know I’m a good driver and I know my own limits above and beyond what the government thinks I should do.

    Should I drive under the influence?

    It’s my right to choose, after all.

    I’ve been collecting weapons for 24 years. I shoot my assault rifle every weekend, it has no sporting purpose and cannot be used for hunting. The only purpose for that rifle is to kill other human beings. Never killed anyone.

    Should I own and shoot an assault rifle?

    It’s my right to choose, after all.

    Now that I’m done being silly, I’ll add my two cents.

    My personal feeling about driving?

    Ban automatic transmissions.


    Because automatic transmissions allow people to easily do all kinds of shit that they could not do with a manual gearbox.

    Automatic transmissions allowed people to become disengaged from the driving experience.

    Ever try to dial a cell phone while shifting gears? Put on make-up? Eat a bowl of cereal?


    Whenever I’m at an intersection and I see someone either doing something really stupid, or tailgating, or riding up right on my bumper waiting for the light to change…

    …it’s another asshole with an automatic transmission.

    Ban automatic transmissions.

    There, that’s my two cents 🙂

  23. Brett- That’s a brilliant idea. It would take a lot longer for some people to learn to drive and/or get their license, too.

  24. As a radio amateur, this law will cost me money after the grace period (amateurs were allowed 3 years to come up with hands-free options). It’s a piss-off too because there was never, ever any evidence that using a radio microphone was dangerous.

    People have been doing it for 60 years… you’d think if there was a problem it might have been noticed in more than half a century. Of course, why let common sense prevail when you can make a mommy-law and treat the population like bratty kids.

  25. yes, truckers too. And police/fire/ambulance, although P/F/A and amateur radio get a grace period. In theory, truckers and their CBs do not get a grace period, although the first one that gets nailed for it would be wise to fight it in court since the only difference between a CB and an amateur or police radio is the governmental licence requirement.

  26. Squid – Well, hunh…if I’m dying in the back of an ambulance I don’t think I’d like them to have to pull over to talk about my condition with the hospital

  27. XUP – two possible (and possibly complementary) rebuttals:

    1, there are two paramedics

    2, if I’m dying in the back of an ambulance I don’t think I’d like the driver to a crash because they were talking on a phone instead of paying attention to getting me to the ER.

    – RG>

  28. Grouchy – Ya, I know. I’m pretty sure the guy driving a speeding emergency vehicle through traffic isn’t the same guy on the radio. That would be silly.

  29. Good discussion. Interestingly, here in Florida, it is legal to ride a motorcycle without a helmet and I always find it startling to see one go by with the wind in the rider’s hair. But I have noticed that many of the people bicycling here ARE wearing helmets. Of course, they choose to, in both cases. But it does make for a silly contrast.

  30. Julia – How much longer will you be in Florida…rubbing our noses in your balmy life while we’re up to our necks in slush? It’s funny that people wouldn’t think to protect themselves with stuff like helmets while riding a motorcycle isn’t it?

  31. Oh it’s a difficult thing but someone has to do it. We are in Cocoa Beach for today and tomorrow we will continue making our way back up the east coast, depending on the weather. M&D want to spend a couple of days in Charleston and since I have never been, I would like to see it too. Today however, it is only going to get up to about 14C here and it is very windy. But the sun is shining so that’s okay! And 14 is better than -14. After I do laundry, I’m off to walk the beach and visit Ron Jon Surf Shop (you can Google it). I expect we might be home in about a week. And then the campaign begins!

  32. Julia – What campaign?? Don’t be in too much of a rush up the east coast, apparently there’s quite a winter storm brewing in the north east/Southern Ontario.

  33. Let the fun begin! I am running against Rick Chiarelli in Ward 8 in October. I haven’t submitted my nomination papers but will when I get home.

  34. Banning use of mobile phones while driving is already illegal here, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A guy in Scotland was charged by the police for blowing his nose while in his car. Stopped at traffic lights. With the handbrake on.

  35. Loth – So is that illegal, too or does the law just say “any” impairment and leave it to the discretion of the coppers? Because I think ours pretty specifically says electronic devices — so it’s still okay to put your make-up on as long as you’re doing it manually and not with an electronic make-up applicator, I guess