Driving While Distracted


Matt Richtel has a good piece in the New York Times on the economic pressure to multitask that drives a lot of people to try to use work-related electronic devices while they’re also driving:

Truckers, plumbers, delivery drivers and others are tethered to dispatchers with an array of productivity devices, including on-board computers that send instructions about the next job and keep tabs on drivers’ locations. Such devices can require continual attention — distracting drivers who are steering the biggest vehicles on American roads.

The compulsion to work while driving often trumps clear evidence that such activity is dangerous. Studies show that someone who talks on the phone while driving is four times more likely to crash, even using a hands-free headset, than someone who is simply driving. The risks are even greater when sending text messages.

It would be good to be clear about one point, though, namely that this isn’t just people making an individualized tradeoff about their safety versus their jobs. When you drive in a dangerous manner, you’re creating a huge risk for everyone else on the road as well. Consequently, this kind of thing should not only be illegal, the penalties ought to be pretty stiff. A guy who walked alongside the road shooting bullets into the air would be quickly perceived as a danger to the whole community and stopped. People who talk or text on the phone behind the wheel are imposing huge costs on everyone else.

Insofar as people need to save time on their commutes it would make a lot more sense to use a congestion tax like they have here in Stockholm. As you see, the actual prices that they charge are pretty modest (you need to pay in both directions). The whole system was very controversial when first put into place—just as the proposed NYC system was controversial until the state legislature decided to kill it notwithstanding the wishes of NYC’s people and elected officials—but the debate has substantially died down since it’s been up and running for a while. There’s a strong mental bias toward the status quo that makes people skeptical of this idea, but I’m pretty sure it’ll spread steadily over time. Ultimately unpriced crowded roads are genuinely contrary to the interests of the vast majority of people, it’s just that historically the technology hasn’t existed to do congestion pricing in a reasonable way.