A Public-Health Crisis That We Can Fix
This article was published on NY Times
The federal judge and legal scholar Guido Calabresi likes to pose a conundrum to his law students. He asks them to imagine a deity coming forth to offer society a wondrous invention, one that would make everyday life more pleasant in almost every way.
This invention comes with a cost, however. In exchange, the deity would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead.
Calabresi then asks the students if they accept the deal. In 30 years of giving the lecture at Yale, the answer is almost always no. At which point he delivers the lesson: “What’s the difference between this and the automobile?”
Modern society is impossible to imagine without the automobile, yet it’s also one of the biggest destroyers of life. In the United States, crashes claim 1,000 lives every nine days. Last year, 40,000 Americans died, about as many as from breast cancer and more than twice as many as from murder.
We put up with these costs because we imagine them as unavoidable human imperfection. We are willing to make some changes, like wearing seatbelts and driving sober, which have caused deaths to decline gradually for decades. But we assume there is no cure. We’ve accepted the deity’s offer: modernity in exchange for 1,000 lives, again and again and again.
The digital revolution, however, is changing the calculation.
It is both making the problem worse and creating a potential solution. First the bad news: Vehicle deaths are surging, up 14 percent in the last two years. It’s the first significant rise in a half century, which qualifies as a public-health emergency. The recent increase, by itself, exceeds the entire annual toll from skin cancer.
The only plausible cause is the texting, calling, watching and posting that people now do while operating a large piece of machinery. Insurers understand that, as The Wall Street Journal reported, and are raising rates.
The stories of individual deaths — and I read many while reporting this column — are awful. They make you think of your family, your friends and, guiltily, your own distracted driving.
Five-year-old Moriah Modisette was in her parents’ Toyota Camry near Dallas when a man driving an S.U.V., and using his iPhone, slammed into the Modisettes, killing Moriah.
Megan Goeltz, a pregnant mother of a 3-year-old girl, was in her Ford Fusion at a stop sign in Minnesota when a distracted driver’s car flew over an embankment and crushed her.
Joseph Tikalsky was getting the newspaper out of his mailbox one morning. Ten-year-old Raquel Rosete was walking on the sidewalk. Brittanie Johnson, Brianna Robinson and her sister Jade Robinson, none of whom was yet 20, were passengers returning home from a vacation. Every one of them was killed by a distracted driver.
Unfortunately, stories like these won’t persuade most people to give up distracted driving. We are overconfident about our own driving abilities. (I’m just going to glance at my phone on this straightaway.) And smartphones, with their alerts, are so darn enticing.
“This is a really difficult traffic safety problem, unlike any other one,” says David Teater, a Michigan business executive who became an anti-distraction advocate after his 12-year-old son, Joseph, was killed. Drunken driving and seatbelt-less riding don’t tempt drivers at almost every moment. Phones do.
Like most public-health crises, this one requires a societal solution. Today, not a single state has a sensible law. Most forbid holding a phone while driving, but penalties and enforcement are weak — and hands-free use is still dangerous, studies show. The distraction, not the physical act of holding a phone, creates the problem.
Think of it this way: Allowing hands-free talking and texting is akin to forbidding drivers from getting drunk on liquor yet letting them have a few beers before getting behind the wheel. Some companies, including Exxon Mobil and Johnson & Johnson, have a better approach. They have banned employees from all smartphone use while driving.
The other answer is technology. “There is strong, robust technology available that could solve a lot of the distracted-driving problem immediately,” Teater points out. Apple and wireless phone companies could install a driving mode on phones, much like airplane mode, that would allow only directions, music and podcasts. It would turn on automatically in a moving car (and passengers could override it). The companies’ refusal to do so suggests that they take convenience more seriously than safety.
Long term, technology can also take over more driving duties, like automatic emergency braking. I realize “driverless cars” make many people anxious. But automation has made airplanes vastly safer, and it will for cars, too.
Remember Calabresi’s lesson: Even before distracted driving, cars claimed a toll that would be shocking if it had not become normal. Technology has now given us the choice between making a terrible problem worse and saving a lot of young, healthy lives.