We don’t need talking cars: Column – USA TODAY
In Back to the Future Part II, everyone has a flying car in the year 2015. If the federal government has its way, everyone will have a talking car by 2017.
Earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it will require all new cars to come equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology by the time President Obama leaves office. The NHTSA predicts that V2V technology, which lets cars exchange basic safety data such as speed and location, could reduce traffic accidents involving unimpaired drivers by 80%.
“The results could be nothing short of revolutionary for roadway safety,” said David Friedman, acting administrator of NHTSA. “This is just the beginning of a revolution in roadway safety,” said Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. The revolutionaries at the Department of Transportation are as passionate about eliminating risk as the Soviets were about eliminating the Kulaks.
A government pamphlet notes with pride that “an overwhelming majority of drivers (9 out of 10)” want V2V technology in their cars, which, if true, raises an obvious question: If talking cars are in such high demand, why must the government mandate them? The answer, it seems, is that the government cares about your safety more than you do.
Safety is always an attractive proposition to the overwhelming majority of people who are alive, but not everyone is willing to incur the costs that safety requires. Most people don’t drive 10 miles an hour on the interstate or wear a helmet all day long for the simple reason that safety can be extremely inconvenient and dumb-looking.
If talking cars save as many lives as our car czars predict, consumer safety will come at the expense of consumer choice. If, on the other hand, the technology fails, consumers will be paying for the automotive equivalent of an appendix. The only beneficiaries in such a scenario would be the makers of appendices, close cousins of the ethanol industry.
The know-it-alls in government don’t know it all. In its own press release, NHTSA admits that it hasn’t finished “its analysis of the data gathered” about talking cars, even though it already has decided to mandate them. One official referred to the technology’s “game-changing potential” to save lives, as if potential and results were the same. Sarah Palin, if you recall, once was deemed a game-changer, too. But unlike talking cars, she was an option, not a requirement.
Transportation officials like to compare talking cars to seat belts, which are an interesting case in government-enforced safety. When the government first mandated them, it required a specific kind of seat belt, which deprived auto companies of the incentive to invent a better seat belt or a superior alternative. University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman, after studying the impact of seat belt laws, concluded that “regulation has not decreased highway deaths.” It’s entirely possible that, without seat belt laws, we’d be better off.
Some people are more interested in regulations than they are in safety. Ralph Nader argued long ago that “the consumer must be protected at times from his own indiscretion and vanity.” This mode of thinking lay behind the paternalistic instincts of federal regulators, who see danger lurking everywhere but in their own directives.
In 1983, the band Men Without Hats released a song called “The Safety Dance,” which is something of a misnomer. Dancing, like driving, is an inherently dangerous activity, which is why the town in Footloose outlawed it. The lesson of Footloose is pertinent: When you force people to be safe, you force them to be miserable.
“A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free,” John Stuart Mill observed, “unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself” (see: Kevin Bacon). This is certainly true, but people have a right to make themselves miserable. The government, however, does not have the right to make us miserable on our behalf.
Windsor Mann is the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.
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