Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

10.31.12

Even Good Laws Sometimes Don't Work

Bans on texting while driving seem to backfire.

Texting while driving is incredibly dangerous.  I mean, if you're texting while stopped at a light--a pox on you, if I'm the one behind you in the lane, but okay, you're not going to kill anyone.  Typing while the vehicle is moving, however, is morally wrong and should be strenuously discouraged, if necessary by applying the force of law.  

But while I support such laws in theory, it's not clear that they work so well in practice:  

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that 3 of every 4 states that have enacted a ban on texting while driving have seen crashes actually go up rather than down.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why this is the case, but experts believe it is a result of people trying to avoid getting caught in states with stiff penalties. Folks trying to keep their phones out of view will often hold the phone much lower, below the wheel perhaps, in order to keep it out of view. That means the driver’s eyes are looking down and away from the road.  

As Alex Tabarrok notes, we should be cautious about interpreting this--it could just be a chance result.  Nonetheless, it's worth keeping this in mind when considering new regulations:  even the most unobjectionable, worthy law can have unintended consequences that make it counterproductive.  

Fairly frequently, when I am pointing out the problems with some government program, an indignant commenter, tweeter, or emailer unleashes an angry torrent, the gist of which is that I am disingenuous and immoral because:  

1)  There is a big problem  

2)  People will be hurt unless we fix the problem.  

3) Therefore, I clearly want people to be hurt.

As I point out each time, in this case 1) + 2) does not equal 3).  Which is to say, the existence of a bad thing does not imply, axiomatically, that there is a legislative solution to it.   Pointing out that a proposed solution doesn't work is not automatically equivalent so wishing ill on the people who would be helped if it did.  Nor, despite their fervent assertions to the contrary, am I obliged to come up with an alternative solution before I am allowed to point out that their proposal has problems.  There is nothing more dispiriting than writing a long post outlining why a given problem may not be amenable to government solution, only to be beseiged by folks who apparently flunked remedial reading, demanding to know what solution I propose, then, huh?  

The alternative interpretation of their behavior--that they truly believe it is better to do something that doesn't work than to do nothing at all--is even stupider.  

I fervently believe that the government should cut down on texting-while-driving if it possibly can.  But it does not therefore follow that it possibly can.