Among common arguments against almost any form of business regulation is that government shouldn't intrude in areas where "market forces" will more efficiently accomplish the same regulation.
Among the cases that most obviously contradicts this laissez-faire belief in the self-regulating market is the shameful record of Big Tobacco. For generations, covering hundreds of thousands of smoking-related deaths and billions of dollars in smoking-caused medical expenses, tobacco companies systematically opposed any effort to publicize the dangers of cigarettes. This opposition came despite reams of research by the companies themselves -- all of it suppressed -- proving that smoking causes cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and dozens of other insults to the human body.
However, lately, the anti-regulation crowd tends to point proudly to the cellphone industry's campaign, led by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) CEO Randall Stephenson, to get people to break their insane habit of texting while driving. Here certainly, is the model of an industry that has spotted a problem and is acting decisively against it.
In fact, the case of texting -- or any phone-based "distracted driving" -- is a good example of why government works better and faster than the market to protect consumers from unseen peril in the new products that they love to death. Over the last three years, the Wireless Association (CTIA), has demonstrated good citizenship by fulminating against texting-while-driving. Mobile operators are lending support to most laws that would impose criminal penalties on automotive texters.
However, a little historical research reveals a record that's not quite so sterling and straightforward. Before mobile operators began speaking out against driver's-seat texting, they professed a more nuanced view. While agreeing that people who text while driving are imbeciles, they drew the line, sharply, at any federal action to shut down the imbeciles. Mirroring the states'-rights ideology of the American right, the CTIA opposed a uniform federal law. Instead, it favored individual state bans.
Remarkably, even texting-while-driving has powerful political defenders. Foremost among these is Texas governor Rick Perry. He has maintained that the right to ignore the road while tapping out a love-note to your sweetie, even if it causes you to veer onto the shoulder and kill a man changing a flat tire, is a matter of personal freedom enshrined in the Constitution. Perry vetoed Texas' anti-texting law, calling it a "government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults."
The mobile industry chooses to humor extremists like Perry, which leaves 11 states where homicidal idiots can still text and drive. More importantly, it leaves a hodgepodge of laws that confuse the issue rather than making clear -- like a cigarette pack bearing the message: "SMOKING KILLS" -- that texting at the wheel also kills.
Does it? Most research indicates that distracted driving causes at least a half-million injuries and some 5,000 traffic deaths every year. Most researchers regard texting at the wheel as far more reckless than driving with a blood-alcohol level above 0.10 percent. Texting creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.
Before CTIA members like AT&T and Sprint took their currently responsible position favoring (state) anti-texting laws, they preferred to hawk "driver education" as a nice, non-controversial, under-the-radar solution. Don't let the government come between you and your mobile-phone operator. Leave it to us, the corporations, to tell drivers, hey, don't text at the wheel. And everybody'll stop being naughty, just like that.
Except, the idiots haven't stopped. At least 40 percent of all drivers continue to use their phones while driving, especially in those 11 states where distracted driving remains as sacrosanct as the Alamo and the Second Amendment. This typical failure at self-regulation was foreseen, in the 1960s, by Martin Cooper, who developed one of the first "car phones." As soon as he had invented the damn thing, Cooper had the wisdom to realize what a menace he had wrought. "There should be a lock on the dial," he said, "so that you couldn't dial while driving."
Cooper's industry has made praiseworthy progress on distracted driving. But it's still reluctant to put a lock on the dial. And it's still quibbling over how big, and how strong, and how widespread, the lock should be. So, even though the solution is as simple as a seatbelt, distracted driving remains a daunting, deadly problem. The reason for this stalemate -- and the reason why capitalism and self-regulation are chronically incompatible -- is that the public interest has never been, nor will it ever be, a "market force."