Ray LaHood Wants to Ban In-Vehicle Cell Phones

By Chris Haak

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a crusader against distracted driving, has fired the latest salvo in the battle.  The Daily Caller [via TTAC] reports that not only has LaHood gone beyond suggesting penalties for in-car handheld cell phone use, but actually wants to require that jamming devices be installed in all new cars to block cellular signals from being transmitted or received.

LaHood specifically said, “I think it will be done… I think the technology is there and I think you’re going to see the technology become adaptable in automobiles to disable these cell phones. We need to do a lot more if were going to save lives.”  Folks, raise your hand if you have a problem with this.  Raise both hands (or a pitchfork) if you have more than just “a” problem with this.

Clearly, Mr. LaHood is overreaching in terms of what Big Brother is allowing in vehicles – by removing personal responsibility for one’s behavior from the equation (though his blog post in response to the Daily Caller article backtracked to emphasize personal responsibility rather than the “technological solution), he’s just encouraging government intrusion into an area where additional regulation does not belong.

Personally, I am a moderate with slightly left-leaning tendencies, but any proposal to actively jam cell phone signals within cars is such an intrusion into folks’ personal lives by government that it does nothing but make Mr. LaHood look like an out-of-touch bureaucrat, and give Tea Partiers further evidence (at least to them) that Big Government is going to further intrude into every aspect of our lives.

I have fortunately never known a loved one who was a victim of a distracted driving accident, but I’ve been around plenty of clueless, cell-phone-wielding fellow motorists to know that some folks just cannot drive and yap on a phone at the same time.  Once, on a two-lane back road, I witnessed the car in front of me crossing the double yellow lines no less than eight times over a five-mile stretch.  When I finally got close enough to the person at a stop sign, I saw the phone tight against the driver’s ear.

But does it really make sense to prohibit any type of cellular signal in a car?  Should passengers not be allowed to speak freely on their phones?  Can teenagers not send text messages from the back seat, or watch online videos from the back seat?  What about busy salespeople who spend the majority of their time on the road, usually with at least a Bluetooth headset, and often an integrated Bluetooth telephone system?  Should they be expected to pull into parking lots every time they want to call a prospect or client to discuss business, rather than taking advantage of “down time” on the road?

Make no mistake; using a cell phone while driving can be dangerous, and texting or reading emails while driving is almost certainly dangerous.  But there are better ways to encourage a behavioral change than Big Brothering people to death.  Secretary LaHood is doing the campaign against distracted driving a great disservice by overreaching and taking his ideas too far.

Of course, the potential problems in emergency situations are numerous.  Suppose you’re the unfortunate victim of road rage, and an angry idiot is tailgating you, bumping your car, or waving a gun at you – should you pull over and get out of the car in order to call 911 for help?  What if you see an old lady in her Buick Century wagon cruising the wrong direction down I-95 outside Philadelphia – should you wait to call the police until you can find a safe spot to pull over?  Also, would cell phone jamming technology harm emergency-vehicle radio transmission capabilities?

Suppose you’re traveling to a meeting that’s three hours away, and 15 minutes into the trip, the meeting is canceled.  Without a working cell phone, you’re back in the technological dark ages, and have wasted at least 5 hours, 45 minutes of what could be a productive day by driving to something you didn’t have to drive to.  Assuming your car gets 25 miles per gallon on the highway, that’s also $41.40 in wasted gasoline (at $3.00 per gallon) as well.  There would be more wasted gasoline when your wife can’t call you on your way home from work and ask you to pick up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk; instead, you have to backtrack, miss family time, and head to the store on a separate trip to get those items.

The idea is so preposterous that it will never actually see the light of day.  Not only will citizens strongly express their displeasure with something like this (as many already have, as they certainly should), but powerful lobbying groups from the auto industry (who don’t want to be required to put even more “safety” equipment into new cars, and it’s not clear as to whether the jamming equipment could be harmful to OnStar, satellite radio, or regular radio) and the telecommunications industry (who won’t want the dramatic reduction in cellular phone usage that would come from an inability to use phones inside the car.)

I could envision OnStar being somewhat behind an idea like this one, on the assumption that built-in telematics services with an external antenna might still be permissible.  There could also be a cottage industry of external antennas and other methods of defeating the jammers.  One memorable time the government tried to use nannying techniques to cajole Americans into a particular “desirable” behavior was the seatbelt-ignition interlocks in the 1975 model year that did not allow the car to start without the seatbelt being buckled.  That nonsense drove people crazy, led them to disable it, and eventually led to backtracking by the NHTSA.  A similar outcome would likely be the final result in this case as well, but the NHTSA should just listen to the people and not overreach by implementing something so ridiculous and unpopular, knowing that it would be overturned and make the agency look more silly than it already does.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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