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Human Nature and the Push to Legislate Safe Driving

— April 7, 2015

Vehicle safety groups are always working toward making our highways and byways safer and some of their efforts have paid off. Seat belt use in some states is up and “no texting and driving” laws are in place to cut down on the incidence of distracted driving. All of this has, of course, led to safer roads and fewer accidents. Yet more must be done, some groups claim. And they are seriously questioning why our elected officials aren’t using the powers of their offices to do it.

According to FairWarning, a source of News of Safety, Health and Corporate Conduct, the roll call of how auto accidents have impacted politicians is nothing short of a litany of disaster:

  • President Clinton’s father was killed in the 1940s when ejected from a car during a crash.
  • Laura Bush hit and killed a family neighbor as a teen driver in the 1960s.
  • President Obama’s father was killed in a crash in 1982.
  • Vice President (then U.S. Senator) Biden’s wife and infant child both died in a car-truck collision.
  • As a young Mormon missionary, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was seriously injured in an accident in France that took the life of a fellow passenger.

Ray LaHood, current Transportation Secretary, and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland have both spoken out on the dangers of distracted driving, yet automakers are adding “infotainment” features with every new model. Many of these features have video display screens that will, in arguably, cause drivers to look away from the road. Some consumer activists argue that electronic automatic crash notification systems should be standard in all vehicles, rather than these distracting displays. The notification systems are believed to reduce delays in treating seriously injured accident victims, thus reducing fatalities.

This issue presents a unique question: to what extent can the government regulate roadway safety without overreaching?

As FairWarning suggests, the automatic crash notification systems should be made standard. The same source suggests ceasing production of distraction-causing features, such as video displays. I completely agree with these suggestions. However, FairWarning’s suggestions don’t totally solve the problem. What about all of the vehicles currently in service that do not have the notification systems or that do have the video displays? Can the government force drivers and/or automakers to “correct” these vehicles’ problems?

Further, what about non-automaker based forms of distracted driving? Texting, email, shaving, applying make-up, eating, getting dressed, reading… all are sources of potentially deadly distraction that are beyond automaker control and perhaps beyond governmental control. After all, we have “don’t text and drive” laws yet texting and driving is an everyday occurrence. We have seatbelt laws yet some drivers and passengers refuse to use the lifesaving devices.

Teddy bear wearing a seatbelt, hand held by a child; image courtesy of Lex Machina.
Teddy bear wearing a seatbelt, hand held by a child; image courtesy of Lex Machina.

We now have vehicles that can tell drivers when they’re drifting into a different lane, when they’re tailgating (with appropriate levels of brake application) and even a couple that sound an alarm if the driver is falling asleep. Research is even being done on driverless cars. And there’s the rub.

Sure, the government could legislate that the notification systems are mandatory in all new vehicles. It could even legislate that manufacturers must cease production of distraction-inducing features (far more difficult to do). The one thing the government cannot do, no matter the hue and cry of safety advocates, is legislate human nature. Or, more to the point:

The government cannot legislate against stupidity.

At some point, we as a species have to take a look at our behaviors and ask ourselves,

“Am I causing my own problems?”

“Is reading ‘Harry Potter’ while driving to work a good idea?”

“Could I be endangering myself and others by focusing on the rearview mirror to finish my shave/my make-up/tying my tie instead of watching the road?”

I am all for manufacturers being held accountable for producing safe products. However, we sometimes veer so far from personal responsibility in the use of those products that I have to wonder if any automaker can make a 100% safe vehicle? Or, if any legislative body can draft a comprehensive law guaranteeing 100% safe travel when human nature (i.e., stupidity) continues to find new and bizarrely ridiculous ways to circumvent them?

As mentioned earlier, maybe the solution is driverless cars. However, that’s a technology that’s not yet ready and as with any technology, it’s only as good as the humans who use it. I love my species, but I’m also willing to bet that sometime, in the maybe-not-so-distant future, we’ll be seeing news reports of hacked self-driving cars that were forced to break safety laws all in the name of getting to Starbucks while not running late for work.


FairWarning – A Strange Indifference to Highway Carnage

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