Eleven years ago, one of us (Hahn) produced some research on the consequences of using cell phones while driving – research that proved controversial. The upshot was that the case for banning cell phone use while driving was no slam dunk.
Others – well, almost everybody who took keyboard to hand – disagreed. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, Tom and Ray Magliozzi (the hosts of Car Talk on NPR) called the research “a clear case of cost/benefit analysis run amok” and, invoking the immortal words of Ted Williams, advised that “If you don’t think too good, then don’t think too much.”
True, there was some evidence that talking on a phone while driving creates risks parallel to driving while drunk. But there was more compelling evidence on the other side. Furthermore, it was hard to reject the hypothesis that drivers who use cell phones tended to be inherently more inclined to take chances (in econ-speak: to be risk-seekers) than other drivers. [Download Here] So, if they weren’t busy on the phone, they would be inclined do something equally distracting — like fiddle with the CD player or burn themselves drinking coffee.
That brings us to the issue of texting while driving. We admit to being at a disadvantage here because neither of us has ever texted while driving. Indeed, one of us can barely text while sitting on the couch. But if you think of texting as typing (which it is), and that it requires you to at least glance at a keypad, isn’t it just a little crazy to allow this activity while driving down the highway at 65?
But we have a larger purpose here than simply to reaffirm our sanity. Most economists – not just us — are reluctant to bar activities flat-out because bans may be quite costly to implement and almost always impose significant costs on somebody. Still, cases like texting while steering a 5,500 pound machine moving at 90 feet a second on a crowded highway suggests that outright bans – as opposed to, say, taxes on the “external” costs of texting – sometimes make perfect sense. It would be nice, though, to be able to be clearer about precisely when and why.