This past week the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 673, which broadens the existing Georgia ban on texting while driving. The bill requires the use of hands-free technology when such devices are in use. The putative goal of this legislation is then to keep more eyes on the road and fewer in the lap. Certainly a laudable goal and for the most part it should have the intended effect (once drivers are pulled over – 99% of people are not plugged into the news cycle and will remain ignorant of this subtle change in the law until they themselves are informed by the local constabulary).
However it seems no new law is complete without smuggling in a perverse incentive clause. Such lunacy is the hallmark of government imposed rules. A perverse incentive produces the exact opposite of the desired outcome. One of the more humorous examples is the one in which 19th century paleontologist in China would pay peasants for dinosaur bone fragments they happened to find when plowing their fields. Win-win, right? Wrong: the villagers, they learned later, were smashing the bones into numerous tiny fragments to maximize the per piece payments. So in similar fashion this new law has a backdoor that will maximize, rather than minimize, eyes in the lap. It does not recognize an exception on the prohibition of device usage even when stopped at a stop light or stop sign. Since it is much more likely to be noticed using your phone while stopped (beat cop, motorcycle cop, or nearby patrol car) this continued prohibition will have the entirely predicable outcome of incentivizing people to clandestinely use their phone in their lap where nearby eyes are less likely to notice phone manipulation. It makes zero sense to disallow use while stopped. When your vehicle is not moving you present zero danger to anyone. At worst you may get honked at for not moving when the light turns green. If people know they can check their phone every few minutes at the next light they will be far more willing to simply wait until that opening arrives. But if that opportunity is proscribed and made even more fine-risky relative to use while in motion, then people will choose the less fine-risky path and do so while in motion.
If we must have road socialism (state ownership) then it shouldn’t be too much to ask that such owners provide the people with a safe product. To encourage a safe environment there needs to exist legal liability for the owners along with a set of fairly enforced and rationally understandable rules. We’ll never have the former but two out of three is better than nothing. When the rules (traffic laws) are neither fair (e.g. letter of the law rather than spirit of the law enforcement), nor rationale (ban on use while stopped) and to top it all off driven by blatant self-interest (fine collection) then drivers lose respect for those rules and the institution that enforces them and that loss of respects hurts all on the road. If people respect the reasons behind the rule, they’ll respect the rule. In Germany speed limits are set to maximize safety, not revenue. Drivers there will be slow down or speed up in unison upon changes – because they respect that the sign is conveying real information about the driving environment rather than a desire to hand out speeding tickets. If the state respects the driver, the driver will respect the rules.