Cell phone bans are popular these days. The rationale is that too many accidents are caused by people being distracted by cell phones and because they are so popular they should be banned — everyone should have to use a hands-free device. But this is just another arbitrary dictate by the state, which has unfortunately taken over the management of roads and highways. The government has no incentive to be entrepreneurial. Whatever rules are enacted, they do not have to reflect the "customers" that it is "serving."
My question is simple. Because government-run roads are presumably safer with cell phone bans, should we not call for more bans? For example, it is possible that some people become more distracted by things other than cell phones. Some women put on makeup while driving and then steer with the knees. Parents can become completely overwhelmed by loud children in the mini-van. Then there’s the champion of them all: the fast food eater. This strange and mythical creature, often found commuting from suburbia to downtown, has been spotted doing any or all of the following: wolfing down a double whopper; seasoning fries with ketchup and extra salt; wiping off spilled chocolate milkshake from his shirt; and watching a movie on his iPod. With enemies such as those, I am shocked — shocked! — that the government has not cracked down on makeup, children and food…or at least not yet (let’s not give them ideas).
Why is there a battle against specific distractions? Should it not make more sense to instead target reckless driving as opposed to the causes of the problematic driving? If you can listen to ear-piercing hip hop and still drive carefully and not hurt others, there is no problem. And the same goes for drive-through maniacs, women who pretend they are at the beauty parlor, and, yes, even drivers who are high (or low). Moreover, who is to say that a fifteen-minute conversation on a hands-free device has to necessarily be more distracting than a one-minute conversation with a regular cell phone? Finally — and this is important — driving skills are not uniform. It’s possible that driver A is much better than driver B even if A is on a cell phone or eating.
Let me make it clear that I am not recommending any particular policy. I would love to see roads de-socialized and all government barriers in the transportation industry abolished. Let road entrepreneurs, communities and neighborhoods figure out the details of highways and roads. So long as bureaucrats are the ones establishing road policies there shall be madness. That said, it is true that privately controlled and managed roads would have rules. The difference between private rules and those set by the government is that the managers have an incentive to come up with a set of policies that aim to please their clientele, for otherwise they will lose customers, credibility and could face increased competition. Still, there will be those who would never be completely satisfied about a particular rule. In fact, it’s quite possible that on certain roads, the owner might impose rules that are as restrictive as what the government does today. Even here, however, there is at least the option of opting out and finding another way to get to your destination.* In a free society you would not be forced to pay for the building and maintenance of roads, much less for the enforcement of its rules.
*Acceptance of an offer is rarely ever an all-or-nothing event. Usually there is a pros & cons analysis. Individuals act on the overall benefit that accepting the offer entails. Therefore, whenever there is free exchange it is only necessary that parties consider the officer good enough. This means that, for example, we don’t have to like everything about a restaurant or a store or a private road; it matters that we like it more than other options. It goes without saying that one of the options in free exchange is to be free to reject offers.