Distracted drivers or driverless cars?

Published 7:55 pm Wednesday, May 28, 2014

By Daniel Sutter

Cell phone use and texting while driving have emerged as important safety issues, with states responding by passing numerous laws.  Alabama prohibits texting while driving and cell phone use by new drivers.  Other states ban cell phone use by school bus drivers and by all drivers in school or construction zones.
Texting and phoning while driving are instances of distracted driving; other examples include eating, drinking, talking with passengers, and adjusting the radio.  The U.S. Department of Transportation explains that distraction is any “non-driving activity you engage in.”  Distracted driving imposes significant costs on the nation.  Accidents involving distracted drivers result in 3,300 deaths and 400,000 injuries a year.  Young drivers under 20 are particularly prone to distraction, accounting for one sixth of all distracted drivers.
Our distractions while driving – eating, talking, listening to music, and thinking about what you will do at your destination – are the components of our lives.  Distracted driving really amounts to driving while living.  While distractions undeniably increase accident risks, we can only avoid them entirely by putting our lives totally on hold.
The concern about distracted driving of our public servants tasked with highway safety is laudable and proper.  Yet it also reveals an emergent danger even with well-intentioned government risk regulators.  Supreme Court Justice and regulatory scholar Stephen Breyer has observed that regulators often exhibit “tunnel vision,” focusing almost exclusively on the aspect of safety their jobs concern.
Tunnel vision can lead regulators to go “too far” in pursuing safety, perhaps seeking to minimize highway fatalities.  While this goal sounds reasonable, safety is one value and we must constantly trade off safety against other values.  We could, for instance, dramatically reduce auto fatalities by banning driving altogether.  We accept the risk because of the enormous benefits driving brings to our lives.  And we accept some extra risk from distracted driving because life does not stop when we get behind the wheel.  Preventing all distractions would impose too great of a burden on drivers with lives to lead.
While lawmakers and law enforcement officials have wrestled with problems created by cell phones, new technology promises dramatically improved safety without forcing us off the roads.  Google has pioneered self-driving cars which have now safely driven over a half a million miles on public roads.  Other automakers are also working on “autonomous vehicles”.
Self-driving cars could enormously improve our lives.  Auto accidents kill and injure more than 30,000 and 2 million Americans (respectively) each year.  Driver error (drunk and distracted driving plus other mistakes) factors into 90% of accidents.  Self-driving cars could save tens of thousands of lives, millions of injuries, and billions of dollars of property damage.
The potential benefits extend beyond accidents.  Self-driving cars could bring private auto transport to millions of disabled, elderly and even young Americans.  Poor driving contributes traffic congestion, and traffic jams cost urban commuters an average of 34 hours and the nation almost 2 billion gallons of gasoline annually.  The gas wasted in traffic jams harms the environment.  And we could use hours spent driving more productively and enjoyably.
The treatment of self-driving vehicles by policymakers represents one of the major barriers to their emergence, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Only New York’s motor vehicle law appears to outlaw self-driving cars, and several states have specifically recognized their legality, lawmakers or regulators elsewhere might prohibit or more likely prevent realization of these cars’ full potential.  For instance, requiring a licensed driver to be at the wheel might seem prudent in the event of a malfunction, but it would prevent non-drivers from benefitting from chauffeuring themselves.
The automobile represents one of the signal components of our nation’s economic prosperity and quality of life and literally changed the American landscape in the 20th Century.  Our high standard of living today often challenges us to envision how future economic progress could make our lives better.  Self-driving cars provide one such example.  The only potential roadblock may be from lawmakers and regulators.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  Respond to him at dsutter@troy.edu and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.

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