Texting and Driving

TEXTING AND DRIVING

Most accidents are caused by carelessness, most car accidents by careless driving. Careless driving can be caused by any number of things, including impairment but also a desire to impress one’s buddies. Or, less plausibly, one’s date. Impairment, in turn, can be caused by any number of things – overtiredness, forgetting one’s glasses, having to pee – only one of which is a high blood alcohol level. But we don’t punish anyone for having to pee. We punish him for his careless driving. So some libertarians argue that neither should we be disciplining anyone for drunk driving. We should discipline him if, but only if, he’s violating the rules of the road.

But the argument proves too much. It’s not slaloming the center line that causes a head-on. It’s failing to be on the right side of the road when another vehicle is approaching in the other lane. So it should be perfectly legal to slalom. And of course the same could be argued vis a vis firing a gun down main street. If there’s no one on the street, no harm no foul!

But then why not take the same view of attempts? Any number of things could have caused that fatal shooting, including that the victim was mistaken for a deer. But we don’t jail people for making legitimate mistakes like this. Another possible cause is someone was intending to kill him. We should outlaw intent and success, since otherwise we can’t outlaw anything. But why should we outlaw intent alone? So if the gun jammed, then once again we have no harm and so no foul!

All right, so the libertarian argument fails. We can outlaw drunk driving. But why make it a case of criminal endangerment? Other than at the moment of failing to hand the bartender one’s keys, drunk driving isn’t an intentional offense, whereas failing to shovel one’s sidewalk within 24 hours of a snowfall most often is. For the former you get a criminal record, for the latter a modest fine. Isn’t this ridiculous?

No. The reason for this isn’t rocket science. We criminalize, even strict liability offenses, when the possible consequences are sufficiently dire. If as many people died as a result of unshoveled sidewalks as die by the hood ornaments of drunk drivers, we would make failing to shovel your walk a criminal offense.

But that being the case, why haven’t we made texting and driving a criminal offense? A decade ago texting killed or maimed a tiny fraction of what drinking did. Today that ratio is reversed. [Insert link.] Today texting kills or maimed far more people than drunk driving did even before we had criminalized it. And yet I predict that texting and driving will never be made a criminal offense. Certainly not in my lifetime.

What this shows, I submit, is that there’s more to criminalization than deterring harm. In fact harm need have nothing to do with it. It’s political. If marijuana kills, it kills like tobacco kills, and only if one smokes as much grass as a smoker smokes cigarettes. That’s pretty much unheard of. By contrast, alcohol kills by the millions! But marijuana was the drug of choice of those people. It’s only been since it became the drug of choice of our sons and daughters that we started thinking of decriminalizing it.

Texting while driving is what we all do, where by ‘all’, according to the latest stats, is meant well over 90% of us. [Insert link.] And we’re not going to give it up. We accept that if we’re in an accident and it can be shown we were texting at the time, we’re probably going to be found at fault. And we might even accept being pulled over and fined if a cop sees us texting behind the wheel. But a criminal record? Don’t be absurd!

The criminalization of drinking and driving has reduced its frequency, and so it has saved lives. Far more lives would be saved by criminalizing texting and driving. Or by just making it impossible, which can be easily done. We already have the technology. But it won’t happen. It won’t happen because we can no longer breathe if we’re cut off from knowing where Caitlyn is in the mall now as distinct from twelve seconds ago.

What this says is that whereas our being social animals was naturally selected for, our environment has changed such that our sociality is now going to select against us. Given the stats and projections on texting-related deaths on our streets and highways, by some estimates texting will have driven us to extinction within two generations. That’s faster than even unchecked global warming is predicted to wipe us all out. It follows, therefore, that by any measure texting is a far more urgent threat than global warming, vaccination refusal, and Creation Science combined.

Go ahead. Call me Chicken Little. A prophet is never honored in his own country.

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