Friday, July 31, 2009

Driving Is Dangerous

Recently, it was reported that very important data was withheld from the American public for six years--data that could have made an enormous impact on life as we know it. The ever so important data? That talking on the phone while driving increases your risk of having an accident. Is this information surprising to anyone? Should this information be surprising to anyone? It really should not be. And yet, people are up in arms about it. Why? Because we could have done something six years ago to prevent countless numbers of accidents and deaths from cell phone related accidents? No. It is because someone withheld information from us. Someone was hiding something from us. And in this day and age, secrets are taboo. We believe there should be complete transparency in everything. The problem is that even when things are made transparent, most people still do not understand it.

Take the recent credit crisis. Without going through the labyrinthine process by which different credit vehicles backfired on banks, let me just say that it was akin to blending loan default risks into investment funds and then hedging on the performance of those funds. Layers on layers of risk on which investors could gamble. Since the economy crashed, there has been an outcry for more transparency in banking. The public wants to know in what their banks are investing their money. And the government has helped to make that happen. But are investors any wiser now? By knowing how CDOs and SIVs are created, are they investing more wisely? Of course not. Nor will they ever invest more wisely. The simple truth of the market is that the majority buy high to try and sell higher. It is called the recency trap. If a stock is going up, you think you can jump in on the way up and still make money, not realizing that you have done no research into the true value of the stock, and also not knowing how long the stock will rise. Ninety percent of investors, if not more, have never even read the annual report of a company in which they have invested. I have only read on half of the stock I buy, and that does not include index and target funds, or course. So, having the components of a investment vehicle available for the investors’ review will hardly affect their investing habits.

This is not to say that the transparency of the financial world is a negative, or that it is even a waste of effort. There are people who certainly can benefit from the new information, which is very complicated. But what if the information is not complicated at all? What if it is completely intuitive? What if it is nutritional information on fast food?

In the last few years, fast food restaurants have begun putting nutritional information on all their menu items. If you want to know how many calories that Big Mac will cost you, you can find it on a pamphlet in McDonald’s. You can also find it on the box in which the Big Mac is served. There would be no denying that the Big Mac will hurt you on so many levels. It is hoped that by allowing people to see how unhealthy much of fast food really is, people will eat less of it and the obesity rate in the United States will decrease. But of course it has not made an impact because the nutrition labels are largely ignored by the majority of people eating fast food. But was that really the problem? Was it really that so many people were deceived so successfully by all the fast food restaurants into thinking that fast food was not unhealthy? Or is the real problem that people either do not care or are too stupid to realize that fast food in unhealthy? I believe the latter is true, and so more transparency offers nothing because you are providing common sense, which is severely lacking. Who does not know that fast food is not good for you? Really, who? Apparently, a lot of people.

This is why all the din over the “withheld” data on the dangers of cell phone use is so utterly ridiculous. Who does not actually believe that talking on a cell phone or texting while driving reduces concentration and increases your risk of an accident? Obviously, a lot of people, since the news is littered with their accident stories. But it is not because someone withheld valuable data that would have made these people decide not to text while driving. They would have texted anyways. It is because many people are just stupid or arrogant or both. Maybe they do not understand that talking on the phone means you concentrate less on driving. Or maybe they believe they have the ability to drive super extra careful while texting because they are in that ninety percent of drivers that believe they are better than average drivers. What it means is that the data that was available six years ago would not have been helpful because it was common sense. If you are having a heated conversation with the person sitting in the passenger seat, you are concentrating less on driving. You are therefore more likely to have an accident. And surprise, no cell phones are involved! Should we do a study on people who talk to passengers while driving? Or course it is more dangerous. We could spend millions to cull the data, but do we really need it? There are now rules that forbid bus drivers from using cell phones or texting. Was that really necessary when we have already have signs that tell passengers not to talk to the driver? And I would bet there were rules before cell phones that told bus drivers not to converse with the passengers. Were we that dense that we could not make the tiny jump in logic relative to cell phones?

The buried data purportedly also showed that hands free sets did not alleviate the risk. Why is anyone surprised by that? This poses a conundrum for many cities and states that have passed cell phone bans while driving, because universally hands free sets have been made legal alternatives. What are they to do? The simplest solution is to repeal the cell phone law and hope that it fades away into the past with other blunders the legislature has made. After all, how was the law enforced? Are there cameras recording people driving while on the phone? You would have to still be on the phone or actively texting after you have pulled over and when the officer finally arrives at your car window. Can an officer ticket someone they see on the phone while driving any more that someone they see driving without a seatbelt? I would bet that subpoenaing cell records for proof would prolong and hinder the legal process. The other solution would be to amend the law to include hands free devices as well--an even harder law to enforce, given the size of the devices these days.

But with most new cars installed with Bluetooth phone hookups and speaker phone capabilities, it becomes as though the person you are talking to is in the car with you. So perhaps we should pass a law banning driving with passengers. Everyone should drive alone. The police can pick off the fools that break the law and use the HOV lane.