Talking and driving

5th June, 2004

Dear Economist,

I find it so convenient to talk on my mobile phone while driving. Must I really stop?

— Erica Talbot

Dear Ms Talbot,

Since your petulant tone suggests that you believe that the law should not apply to you, let us consider the issue independently of the legal position.

Talking on your mobile while driving makes you more than four times more likely to have an accident. While 3,000 people die each year on British roads, mobile phones are responsible for about 2 per cent of these fatalities – roughly 60 deaths last year.

We continue to allow driving because it has its benefits.

Talking and driving conceivably also has benefits. Clearly, a more considered view is required to weigh those benefits against the grim costs.

The AEI-Brookings Joint Centre for Regulatory Studies, an American think-tank, often publishes such analysis. Its paper on this subject estimated that the cost of talking while driving – in terms of damage, injury and death – was about $15 for each American citizen. Yet the paper estimates that the average citizen is willing to pay about $65 to keep making calls while driving (this estimate comes, in part, from looking at mobile-phone bills).

All this suggests that there are cheaper ways to save lives than with an outright ban – such as taxing garrulous drivers and using the money to pay for ambulances.

As for your personal decisions, using a hands-free device and postponing trivial calls would save lives for a small cost.

Overall, you simply have to decide whether you are happy to enjoy benefits for yourself despite the costs you inflict on others. It may be economically efficient, but it is still selfish and rude.

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