Should We Ban Apple’s Siri While Driving?

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Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters / Techland Illustration

Eating, smoking, talking to a passenger, and changing the radio dial also distract drivers. Some studies find they’re even more distracting than cell phone use. Yet we instinctively find any suggestion that we ban those activities just as unrealistic as banning driving. Why? It’s because we just as instinctively grasp the cost of such a ban–everything we’d be giving up–and at least intuitively we don’t value the benefit we would receive in less risky roads worth the cost.

“No call, no text, no update is worth a human life,” said NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman. That’s true, but one text versus one life is not the relevant tradeoff. Policy makers are charged with the hard job of weighing all the costs of an outright ban against the likely benefit in aggregate.

Second, let’s assume that banning hands-free talking and texting is the right thing to do, is it a practical course of action?

For one thing, enforcement will be difficult. Catching drivers who are talking to their cars or smartphones will be difficult, so the obvious choke point at which to enforce a ban is at manufacturing. We could ban car makers from installing intelligent hands-free systems like Ford Sync, but of course that would be draconian and would only serve to create a black market in such devices.

(MORE: Rumor: Android’s Answer to Siri Is Coming Soon)

And what about Siri? How do you keep people from talking to their devices? Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told MSNBC last year that requiring manufacturers to install jammers to disable cell phones in American cars was not out of the question.

And what happens when mobile computing and communications become so ubiquitous they’re in the clothes we wear, or implanted in our bodies?

Bad policy leads to worse enforcement, which is why states should really think hard about far-reaching bans. A better solution is education.

Mandatory seatbelt laws have increased seatbelt use, but if you religiously “click it” a little introspection might reveal that you do so not because you’re afraid of the ticket, but because you understand that it’s a low-cost way to reduce your risk of injury. An educational campaign similar to the ones that accompanied seatbelt laws in the 90s could help cut down cell-phone use without resorting to a ban.

MORE: Siri Ported to iPhone 4 Again, but Is It Safe? How About Legal?

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