Should We Ban Apple’s Siri While Driving?

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Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters / Techland Illustration

Look out, Siri. Federal regulators have you in their sights.

Last week the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) issued a recommendation that state governments ban hands-free, as well as hands-on, mobile device use while driving. The recommendation doesn’t have the force of law, but the NTSB’s pronouncements are influential.

There’s no doubt that distracted driving can lead to car accidents that injure or kill, and the recommended ban is certainly well intended. But the NTSB may not be doing the right thing. An educational campaign to change driver’s habits would be a much better approach.

First, how big of a concern is mobile device use exactly? If you’ve lost a loved one to a crash caused by texting or emailing, that question might sound insulting. However, policy makers are entrusted with putting emotions aside and making cooly rational decisions that increase the net welfare of society.

(MORE: Report: New iPhone 4 Siri Hack May Not Break the Law)

A new report, coincidentally released the same day as the NTSB’s recommendation, shows that the methodologies of two influential studies on distracted driving were problematic and they likely overstated the risk of car crash from distraction. But let’s put the studies aside and look at the cost of distracted driving as the NTSB says we should.

The NTSB fact sheet that accompanied the ban’s release notes that there were just over 3,000 “distraction-affected” crashes last year. But what does that tell us?

The figure comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s annual injury and fatality report, which also reported that 2010 saw a record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities. Crash deaths are down to the lowest levels in 60 years even though in those six decades the population has doubled and American drivers now travel almost 46 billion more miles a year. Additionally, the report’s “distraction-affected” crashes include those caused by distractions other than mobile devices. And due to a narrowing of the methodology for counting distraction-affected crashes, the 2010 count of 3,092 is actually less than the 2009 count of 5,474.

While 3,000 deaths is nothing to take lightly, it’s difficult to know from that number alone what we should be willing to give up to eliminate the risk of distracted drivers. All choices have costs. While we could eliminate almost all traffic fatalities by banning driving outright, we know that’s a ridiculous proposition because the cost of that choice is too high even though it would save tens of thousands of lives.

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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