University of Missouri law student Marcus Bowen addresses recent legislative efforts to curtail texting while driving in his latest Missouri Record column. At first glance, the column looks like an intelligent effort to discuss the issues surrounding this latest driving hazard; a second reading reveals that Marcus, a Republican, has a clear ideological agenda here that clouds his thinking and leads him to some intellectually specious conclusions.
Let me start with the first argument that caught my attention in Marcus’s column. He strongly implies that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s signature on a bill prohibiting people under 21 from texting while driving is a ‘publicity stunt’ and not a ‘substantive stand against distracted driving’. The warrants for this argument are that Nevada legislators rejected an age-based ban earlier this year because ‘everyone texts, not just teens’, and that the median age for people who text is 38.
There are some major gaps in the story that Marcus assumes away here. First, an aside: Missouri is the 23rd state implement some kind of texting while driving ban, and one of nine to implement an age restriction. Suddenly, Governor Nixon doesn’t look like he’s after a maverick publicity stunt here; actually, it seems like Nixon realized that Missouri was a little behind a national trend that was worth latching onto. The second problem Marcus runs into here is in how he interprets the statistics available. Since Marcus doesn’t provide a citation for the research studies he cites besides ‘Nevada researchers’, I was forced to use the old trusty Google to verify the numbers. The most likely source of the median age statistic actually comes from a Pennsylvania-based company called Cellsigns; aside from their own research, they also cite Nielsen Mobile as a data source. And it’s true that their research show that the median age of texters is in fact 38. But Marcus fails to ask a key question: does the statistic describe the median age of texters, or does the statistic describe the median age of those people texting while driving? There is nothing to indicate that the study was designed to answer that latter question, meaning that for the purposes of this discussion, the evidence is useless. And what is the use of knowing the median age of texters, anyway? We’re concerned with those most likely to text while driving and discouraging that behavior.
Fortunately, Cellsigns has some useful data that we can extrapolate from. This blog post gives us an age-based breakdown of texters. Most notably, the average number of text messages in the 13-17 demographic is 1742 a month; for 18-24 it is 790; for 25-34 it is 331; and for those 35-44, it is 236. What does this tell us? Most importantly, it tells us that people around 15-17 years old who are just starting to legally drive text an average of 58 times a day. For those median texters who are 38, that number is about 8 texts per day. Those are the meaningful numbers Marcus needs to be looking at. We can continue here and draw some further conclusions. People texting 58 times a day instead of roughly 8 times a day are far more likely to be texting while engaged in other activities, including driving. And that’s before we even note the massive difference between these two demographic groups; teens and young 20-somethings grew up with technology and feel far less concerned about texting all the time; people who are 38 right now are far less likely to make decisions that fragment their attention span because that’s how their preferences and habits have evolved over time. Additionally, the under-21 demographic is distinguished by worse driving; drivers are less experienced and more likely to make bad decisions. It’s why drivers under 21 are more likely to be in accidents. Sanctioning reckless and imprudent behavior is likely to have some deterrent effect at the margin here which is why it’s a good idea.
Next, I take issue with Marcus’s final conclusion: that banning texting while driving will suck up police resources and provide us with a false sense of security and that a real solution is a ‘comprehensive education program’. The first argument I make is that police resources are already heavily vested in the arena of traffic safety and that passing a law that enables them to write another specific ticket will not materially detract from their ability to enforce traffic laws. Second, Marcus fails to appreciate the nature of economic tradeoffs and opportunity costs. The resources necessary to implement Marcus’s unspecified ‘comprehensive education program’ have to come from somewhere; that means that we have to choose between funding comprehensive text messaging education services and funding other things, like for instance better crime labs or the license plate scanners that the local Columbia Police Department have been requesting. Where exactly will that tradeoff happen, Marcus? Perhaps you should do a cost-benefit analysis of your proposal before you present it next time. Not to mention that the only two examples of such educational programs you cite are the Welsh police video that’s made the rounds on YouTube and the US Dept. of Transportation video of Governor Corzine advocating seatbelt use. Can you provide me with data indicating how successful these education programs were? I can at least give you an example of where people’s habits are stronger than government warnings and educational programs: cigarette education has been around for decades and there are warnings everywhere, yet as far as I can tell annual smoking related deaths are still in the millions.
And finally, let me leave you with this piece of advice. One of the great conclusions that economists have come to in the past few decades is that incentives matter. Government education is intrinsically a less incentive compatible way to solve a problem than by changing the incentive structures that they face. Not to mention, Republicans seem to take issue with government educational or motivational efforts; anyone who is familiar with the right-wing furor over President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren will understand that Marcus’s idea is much more likely to generate conservative opposition than acceptance.
Edit: I have advocated for a long time that a statistics course and a good economics course be required for law students. I’ve had far too many conversations with otherwise extremely intelligent law school graduates who didn’t understand basic statistical principles and as a result made some rather egregious mistakes in their thinking.