The Government’s Drive to Criminalize Driving While Talking

Welcome to the dawning of the age of DWT — the criminalization of “driving while talking.”

For the first time, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a formal recommendation calling for states to prohibit the use of cellular phones while driving.

Yes, that’s right. The board even wants to ban mobile phone use while using hands-free devices like earbuds and those fancy cars that let you pick up the phone through the dash using Bluetooth, which are currently viewed as less likely to distract drivers.

Texting while driving

The NTSB doesn’t have legal authority to enforce its proposed phone-use ban, but its recommendations are taken seriously by state regulators and legislators.

“There is a large body of evidence showing that talking on a phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, impairs driving and increases your risk of having a crash,” Anne McCartt, SVP for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told The Huffington Post.

Automobile safety experts agree that distracted driving is behind a growing portion of the accident rate, which in general is falling.

Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, co-authored a test of “the performance of drivers not engaged in conversation and drivers who could hear someone talking to them through headphones. Drivers took the simulator tests inside an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine that recorded images of changes in their brains while driving, including which areas of the brain were used for driving. The amount of the brain devoted to driving was 37 percent less in drivers who could hear someone talking to them than for drivers not using cellphones.”

“The human mind can multitask, but each task is performed with less brain power and lower proficiency,” Just explained.

The NTSB says 18 percent of automobile fatalities are caused by distracted driving (including causes other than phones).

Other distractions, such as children and other passengers in the vehicle, are viewed to be relatively neutral from a traffic safety standpoint. You might be distracted by your screaming kids, but one of them might also point out the potential danger that you might otherwise have missed.

Forty percent of Americans told the National Highway Administration they don’t think that hands-free driving is dangerous. But if you’re like me, and you’re honest with yourself, you have to know that you have more close calls when you text or talk on the phone as you drive.

Still, it’s hard to know where to come down on this question of freedom versus safety. Horror novelist Stephen King was nearly killed by a guy distracted by his dog, but it sure would be sad to mandate that dogs be locked in their cages throughout a drive.

What’s certain is that, if a ban on driving while talking becomes law, it will have significant cultural and economic implications.

A Return to Disconnection

In their early days, cellular phones were more of a way for you to call someone else than for you to be reachable. There were many places where they simply didn’t work: inside buildings, out in the sticks, even in the middle of some cities.

Starting in the 1990s for most Americans, the digital revolution has seen connectivity increased to the point that it is easy to foresee a time when everyone would become available to everyone all the time. Cellular signals have spread into remote rural areas, including national parks, and even into subways. The FAA is currently considering a proposal to allow the use of cellular phones on airplanes.

One place where cellular phones have been popular has been behind the wheel of an automobile. Getting stuck in traffic isn’t as bad if you know you can make a few important calls while you’re sitting there sucking up the exhaust fumes. (Since everyone else is doing the same thing, of course, their reaction times aren’t as great, which means that traffic jams are bigger and longer, but whatever.)

There’s just no denying the appeal of using time that used to be close to a total waste — transportation from point A to point B — to make a call. Not to mention the ability to check Google Maps for a quicker route around that jam, and to text your friend to tell him that you’re running late.

If the NTSB gets its way, all that will be over. Cops will have devices that allow them to track the use of cell phones from moving cars, and though some people will break the law, for most the only interaction you’ll have is with your radio or fellow passengers — if, of course, it’s enforced.

It’s obviously impossible to quantify the cost to business, but I have to think it would be high.

On the other hand, the glory days of unavailability would return. Don’t feel like picking up a call? You can always tell your boss you were stuck in traffic. It would have been illegal for you to talk to them.

Mothers Against Talk Driving?

Talkers won’t be demonized as badly as drinkers, but the media and politicians will declare those who break laws against using cell phones while driving to be irresponsible buttholes, who don’t care if they kill your kid so they can pick up a pizza without waiting for it to be made. There will be ad campaigns, sad-eyed dead children and of course high fines, prison sentences and asset forfeiture.

Trains and Planes Instead?

Some people may decide to switch to alternative forms of transportation where they are still allowed to use their phones in transit. For many people, especially those conducting business during daytime hours, the desire for conductivity will trump all other considerations.

Which might be good — that means less traffic on the roads.

Reverse Darwinism

Experts say that we should expect fewer accidents as a result of a cell ban, which would obviously be great, but what about culling the herd? What if we end up with more, stupider people?

Just kidding.


  • alex_the_tired
    January 23, 2015 6:45 AM


    I really think on some level we are psychically pulling in the same channel. This morning on the subway, a woman was standing in front of the door. It opens and she GRUDGINGLY moves about two inches to her right. She was still blocking the door, and we all had to move around her. The overhead announcements frequently “remind” passengers to allow people to exit the cars first before trying to get into the cars themselves.

    It’s the same disease as cellphones in the car.

    We have been conditioned to seek maximum convenience and maximum gratification at all times. Other people are merely nuisances to be ignored (and occasionally provoked) as needed. And we no longer are penalized for behaving like this. Civilization — people living together — requires civility, a regular introspection of whether you are causing inconvenience to others and attempting to minimize it.

    It will not end well.

  • Next on the agenda will be the outlawing of finger gestures while driving.

  • Ted worrying about costs to business? Arguing against government regulation? Truly the End Times are nigh…

    • Thanks for making me smile big.

      IL outlawed holding a cell phone which went unnoticed by me. My habits have not changed. I have not bought a hands-free device as I neither want nor need one. So I still send the occasional text too. I’m not in NYC traffic. It ain’t NASCAR. Eyes on the road and one hand on the wheel is all I need. The one time I hit someone was when I was distracted. Not by a device or a person but by my own state of mind. I was late and anxious. And all I did was smash my own car’s bumper.

      I’d ask what are these people doing on the phone that is so distracting? Dramatically ending a relationship? Arguing over child custody? Conducting high power negotiations? Giving a college lecture? Because that’s the level it would have to be for me to be distracted enough for it to be a problem. The truth is these people are terrible, inattentive drivers anyway.

  • Ted, I really have a hard time believing that this is the real YOU writing this.

    I, for one, don’t drive with my cellphone on. If there is a live cellphone in the car, it is in Wifey’s possession and control. Hell, I don’t even let HER talk to me if I’m concentrating on my driving; I tell her to “Hold that thought” while I get through this mess. And I’ve been doing that for at least 10 (maybe 20) years – because driving is a full-time job.

    • Sorry — this posted before I finished! Look for the other one. (Webmaster, can you delete this one?) 🙁

  • Ted, I really have a hard time believing that this is the real YOU writing this. It flies in the face of common sense.

    I, for one, don’t drive with my cellphone on. If there is a live cellphone in the car, it is in Wifey’s possession and control. Hell, I don’t even let HER talk to me if I’m concentrating on my driving; I tell her to “Hold that thought” while I get through this mess. And I’ve been doing that for at least 10 (maybe 20) years – because driving is a full-time job and that responsibility is all-important.

    This discourse reminded me of the motorcyclist who was protesting the requirement to wear a helmet while cycling – of course he was motoring through the protest without a helmet. And he crashed, fell to the curb and smashed his brains out.

    GOOD MESSAGE! (At least he died free from the restriction.) 😀

    • I guess I differ a little. I don’t think seat belts should be required, but I’ll always choose to wear one. Government does not have the authority to mandate such things. I think motorcycles are dangerous anyway, so I don’t use them, but if I did I would choose to wear a helmet while still believing the government doesn’t have a say in my choice.

      • By extension, where does government’s authority end? Do they have the right to require a driver to pass a vision test? To require basic physical abilities to operate a motor vehicle?
        If 100% of drivers believed that seat belts prevent deaths and injuries (as do helmets for motorcyclists), the government never would have seen a need for such a mandate.
        Some things are simply common sense choices.
        And I believe that choosing to devote full time to driving, without the distraction of a cellphone, is one of those things that should be common sense. When others choose to endanger themselves and other users of the public roadways, the government has the right to step in and enforce common sense laws.
        Draw an comparison to gun laws here — not to suggest that I want the government to take away your guns. 😀

      • FlemingBalzac
        January 25, 2015 2:04 PM

        DerLehrer, government authority ends at the point where it lacks specific, objective information about a given individual. It ends right before you start talking about what might happen.

        Arguing for authority past that and you’re arguing for the government to lock you up on what it thinks you might do. I know it seems like it’s an extreme jump from cellphone restrictions to gulags but it’s exactly the same principle – that the state has authority to act against you based on general whims and not specific evidence.

      • @ FlemingBalzac –
        In accordance with that logic, the government would have no authority to enforce general laws applicable to the public at large — they would be required to examine every individual citizen to determine whether there might be a detrimental effect upon others. I guess that’s one way to look at it. 😀

      • DerLeher, It would have no power to enforce general laws *without specific, material evidence* of wrongdoing by a particular individual. “Conspiracy”, “intent to” and preventive measures based on probability would indeed have to go.

        Big Daddy Government can’t guarantee your safety or make the world a happy and fair place.

      • Does that apply to government’s mandate for automobile insurance as well?

      • Yes.

      • Wow! That makes me glad that level-headed people are in charge!

      • FlemingBalzac
        January 26, 2015 3:22 PM

        Better a hard heart and a level head than a bleeding heart and a stomped-on head.

        I honestly don’t understand progressives. How can you believe that living in perpetual fear – as a perpetual suspect – of the government and the whims of those in charge of it is an ideal state of being? How can you ignore the fact that socialist paradises all over the world, despite relentless internal propaganda, still need to keep people in with barbed wire? The notion that people risk their lives to leave them even so just can not be passed off as peons brainwashed by Koch Industries against their class interests any longer.

        Sorry, but socialism has failed. It has failed because people have seen it’s true face too many times and won’t buy it now.

      • Where do you get s(uch nonsense?
        First, let me clarify that I live in Mexico, the land of the drug cartels. So what you are talking about doesn’t apply to me at all.
        However, if you advocate for no mandated automobile insurance, THAT

      • … tells me that you are NOT level-headed at all.
        Laws are made for the common good. If you have ever been in an automobile accident and the other driver was at fault, you would see the wisdom of those laws.
        “Bleeding heart” has nothing to do with it — common sense does.

      • FlemingBalzac
        January 26, 2015 6:08 PM

        And how many dark crimes have been committed in the name of the common good – or the moral fabric of the nation or the benefit of the workers and peasants? Not to say that all such things are bad but it’s a dangerous idea to simply turn off all critical faculties whenever the phrase “common good” gets squawked.

        As for the rest, well, muchahco, life sometimes craps on you. Life can be and often is unfair and no amount of laws will ever change that.

      • Your comments are so immature that I have to ask: When did you graduate from 8th grade? Or have you? Get a clue, Amigo.

  • Driving is the one thing in life that allows mortals the power of a god. And the way to salvation lies in you becoming a better driver.

  • What kind of “test” is that? A real test would be utterly simple–just do simulated driving tests comparing hands-on cellphones, hands-free phobes, and no phones. Either they didn’t do such a test–and are totally stupid–or they did it, didn’t get the results they wanted, and made sure they got them by cranking up an MRI–in which case they were totally, criminally, dishonest.
    Whichever was the case, they should be prohibited from ever doing anything again in the name of “science” or “safety.”

  • I worked with a guy who refused to wear a seat belt because it made him feel too safe and he was sure he would get into accidents because his overconfidence would make him drive recklessly.

    I used to argue that driving while drunk should be made legal because cars are so safe now that crashes hardly ever kill anybody anymore.

    My uncle was an alcoholic and the only times his car war wrecked was while it was parked in his garage. One time a tornado caved the roof in on it. The other time the driveway was iced up and another car slid down the driveway and went right through the door and into his car.

  • The difference between safety belts and helmets, is the difference between an nasty bruise and a life changing disability.

    I don’t care if you want to bash your brains out. I do care if you expect to be able to sue someone else (namely ME) to finance your medical care for the rest of your (and my) life.

    When I am king you will simply file a waiver excusing others from liability for injuries arising from your own negligence and failure to use safety equipment to mitigate personal injuries.

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