The next question, of course, is why allow 70-year-olds to drive if their reaction times are no better than a texting teen’s? The answer, of course, is that it isn’t the 70-year-old’s fault that he is 70, and we can’t let anyone lose their license without it being their fault. That would make people feel bad.
Even that question is an evasion though. If reaction times are so important though, why don’t we just administer reaction time tests before issuing or renewing a license?
If we really were security-obsessed risk minimizers we’d have hard criteria to evaluate who qualifies to drive. We can’t have that though because a kind, no-criminal-record, but blind and senile granny somewhere who has never been in an accident
and doesn’t present but nevertheless presents a real threat would lose her license. The responsible congressmen would have to fire someone and the test would be changed iteratively until granny can get behind the wheel again.
But we do want to pay some token of tribute to security. We can do this without threatening the status quo by passing laws that arbitrarily alter already arbitrary laws about how much of what you can consume how long before driving. And we can regulate arbitrary behaviors so that it remains OK to pee into a bottle while driving as long as you’re not also sexting your girlfriend while you’re do it.
We’re not obsessed with risk minimization. We’re obsessed with ensuring that no one should be prevented from driving without it being their own fault.
Edit: Our hypothetical granny presents a real threat.
We’re obsessed with “passing a law” to “do something”. Well, often times, society can’t do anything. How many versions of this do we see, in DUI laws, in gun laws, etc.
The habitual drunk doesn’t get pulled over, but the guy who had 2 beers and didn’t wait long enough, get’s nailed. The level of “saftey” is thereby lowered. Right.
The habitual drunk doesn’t get pulled over, but the guy who had 2 beers and didn’t wait long enough, get’s nailed
I’m still on the road!
In this case, society can and has done something effective. Drunk driving laws have made driving safer. Whether, at this point, raising them incrementally so that you can’t drive home after one glass of wine will have a positive marginal effect is another question.
Smoking’s another example of where public policy changes to influence behaviour can and have done good; far fewer people smoke than used to, and public attitudes towards smoking have changed entirely, and people are healthier for it.
There are some situations where society and government can’t do anything, but there other cases where they can. The point is working out which is which using actual evidence (which we have, to an degree, since different countries do things differently), and which problems deserve what policy interventions and which are better off left alone.
The fact that practically every developed country has higher gun restrictions than the US, and practically every developed country has lower homicide rates and lower gun-death rates, suggests that this is an area where public policy is capable of having a positive impact.
That we fear the wrong things is, I should think, well-established by now. And that resentment of other kinds of undesirable behavior gets tied up with fear is unsurprising.
It’s not wrong to punish the testing-while-driving tern. What’s wrong is leaving Granny with the keys. Reaction time is important. I think the issue, which you hint at but don’t quite articulate, is that Granny votes, so the rulemakers favor her. The teenager doesn’t vote.
>”I think the issue, which you hint at but don’t quite articulate, is that Granny votes, so the rulemakers favor her.”
I thought about saying that, but the problem is that I don’t entirely believe it. Voting rates of different groups is a secondary explanation to the primary one that Granny hasn’t done anything wrong, so we can’t accept her license being taken away, even if it is for good reason. I think we would face this same reluctance as a society even if it were only teenagers voting.
No, I don’t believe your reason either.
I think it is because we Lack Other Alternatives, and removing a woman’s ability to live an independent life is a pretty harsh punishment for being “old”.
Because that’s the actual reality we’re talking about. (well, unless you live In Town, where I’m certain you’d find people much more amenable to removing old people’s licenses).
Also: Granny can drive with enough following distance to not be a danger (pulling off or driving on side streets if necessary).
Japan and the European countries could be stricter with driving laws becasue they have much better public transportation and many more pedestrian-centric communities than the United States. If you take people’s ability to drive away in most parts of the country, you are basically turning them into prisoners in their own home.
Not in my county. I like my county.
Lotta blind folks live here.
Transportation’s kinda a big thing in that.
Kimsie, you’re point is well taken. I will point out though that the punishment wouldn’t really be punishment since it isn’t for bad behavior. It’s just a consequence of not being able to pass the test. Of course that would suck, and many people would indeed view it as “punishment for being ‘old'” even though it should be “consequences of not being a safe driver”.
“If we really were security-obsessed risk minimizers we’d have hard criteria to evaluate who qualifies to drive. We can’t have that though because a kind, no-criminal-record, but blind and senile granny somewhere who has never been in an accident and doesn’t present a real threat would lose her license. ”
Well, if the granny doesn’t pose a real threat, she shouldn’t lose her license. She should meet the criteria to qualify as a driver.
If she does pose a real threat, she should lose her license. Or, put better, fail to qualify and not be granted a new license.
If her lack of threat is a function of her frequency of driving (i.e., she never drives and doesn’t even own a car), then why does she need a license anyway?
I am all for having people continually pass a driving test, perhaps every 5 or 10 years. It is silly that one passed test at 16 or 17 or 18, on equipment that might be well out-dated and with traffic laws that have changed multiple times over gives someone a lifetime license to operate a half-ton hunk of metal hurdling down the road at superhuman speeds.
>Well, if the granny doesn’t pose a real threat, she shouldn’t lose her license.
That’s actually…a good point. I originally wrote the post without the “doesn’t present a real threat” and put it at the last moment. In retrospect, that was stupid.
The point I was trying to make was that there are probably drivers who would lose their licenses if we were security-obsessed, but she retains her license because we are not.
I would say that we are obsessed with the idea of security but know little of how to actually achieve it. A number of factors, including our general inability to properly estimate risk, innumeracy, and conflating feelings of security with actually being secure, all contribute to this.
If the question is whether we should be more or less security obsessed, I think we should be better about security. I’d like to see driving tests redone every 5 or 10 years. I think that would make us considerably safer. On the flip side, I don’t know how much safer we are made by current airport security, especially if it encourages more people to undertake long drives which are considerably less safer than flights. So, I think we could probably improve overall safety by relaxing certain airport security and the costs therein.
But then we’d be letting terrorists win. Or something.
“we are obsessed with the idea of security but know little of how to actually achieve it”
Even when we do know though, our will is lacking when it conflicts with our moral senses of what is acceptable.
On NPR this weekend, they were talking about Minority Report and whether Big Data would enable such a society. The general consensus seems to be that security is important, but proactively preventing security problems is not acceptable when someone who has yet to do anything wrong is made to suffer.
Damnit, I lost my reply here.
What is the purpose of security? Presumably to secure us from harm, yes? But if the steps we take cause more harm than the harm prevented, we’ve failed, yes?
The problem is we tend to overemphasize physical harm because it is easy to see and measure. As a result, we minimize psychological or mental harm. The “stranger danger” efforts… I’m sure they saved some children from being kidnapped. But how much fear and distrust did they instill in people and what is the harm done from that? How many people are socially isolated because social skills were already limited for them and our newfound culture of being weary of anyone made their opportunities for connection even further limited?
I teach young children (4- and 5-year-olds). I believe that living in fear is much worse than skinned knees. So I’m okay with them taking certain risks out on the playground or in other spaces. Our business guy doesn’t always agree because of “liability” but I ain’t doing my job if they’re not falling down every once in a while.
“If her lack of threat is a function of her frequency of driving (i.e., she never drives and doesn’t even own a car), then why does she need a license anyway?”
She might need it for emergencies.
I don’t really mean this snarkily, either. I have a drivers license and although my reflexes are probably what they should be, it’s been so long since I’ve driven that I would probably be an overcautious driver were I to start again. Still, I keep the license just in case something really important comes up, either an emergency or a situation where renting a car is the only good choice I have to get something very important done.
Also, some places look askance at state[i.d.’s, even if they’re required to accept them as legitimate i.d.’s. When I was teller, for example, we were supposed to be more suspicious that a state-i.d. be fake than we were when it was a drivers license, even to the point of sometimes refusing to cash something because we didn’t trust the i.d. (In my opinion, this was unfair and perhaps even illegal, but it happened a couple of times.)
I’m grateful I don’t have to retake the test every few years for the following reasons both because it would be a hassle to get a car that I could use to take the test on and because I would have a non-trivial chance of failing that test (e.g., parallel parking is hard for me to do).
Of course, my need for convenience and just-in-case’ism isn’t really a good argument for me having the license.
Please allow me to clarify…
If the old lady is not a threat ONLY BECAUSE she is never on the road, but if she were on the road, she would pose a threat, than she could reasonably be denied a license.
Now, this all stems from a lack of clarity in the OP, since fixed, so we might quickly be getting moot.
Like Vikram, I’ll stipulate she’s a real threat (although I’ve known 70-year-olds who are at least better drivers than me although I think something can be said for 70-year-old experienced drivers vs. 18-year-old inexperienced ones.)
But I’m not in principle opposed to her having a license for cashing checks with less hassle and for emergencies. The problem, I guess, would be that it would all be on the honor system.
I’d not have a problem with issuing “limited” licenses. “Hi, no interstates”
“Hey, your night vision is improbably low. No night driving.” etc. etc.
Limited licenses seem like a reasonable solution.
Of course, if we all lived in relatively urban areas, she could just walk to the bank.
Better yet, her iPhone probably has an app for check cashing. :-p
And, as Vikram says elsewhere, my test would be ability-based, not age based. If you are 70 and can pass the test, you get a license. If you are 40 and can’t, you don’t.
To your original point, would you allow licenses for 15-year-olds? 14? They may need to cash a check some day and/or encounter an emergency. As Will points out below, our ability to empathize with a person’s position in life impacts how we respond to restrictions on said person. We will all likely get old some day. None of us will be 15 again.
at some point, there is the very real societal presumption that someone who isn’t the minor has “Power of Attorney” (as would be given if the elder was not mentally fit).
I’d allow a 14 year old a daytime license (possibly ALSO excluding “rush hour”). a twelve year old? Probably not.
>”it would be a hassle to get a car that I could use to take the test on and because I would have a non-trivial chance of failing that test”
I am personally sympathetic to this.
I do want to point out though that the genuinely security-obessed society wouldn’t care about such hardships.
I’d like to see an objective test in how we do at (drumroll please,) Identifying Natural Talent.
So Bobby doesn’t have a very good jump shot; he’d rather play video games. Annie’s jump shot, on the other hand, is amazing, she makes it look easy. She must be a natural talent; you can tell by the way she’s always out there practicing.
I don’t know if this is part fallout from the ‘self-esteem’ movement, but I’m seeing serious fails in recognizing where people achieve due to persistant effort.
A related test would be Comprehending Creativity. But here, I blame the artist/musicians etc. who develop public personas of cool to hide the total geek effort into mastering the skills necessary to make it seem like their all about the inspiration while hiding the perspiration. Generally, these people are not too cool to party with us regular joes, they’re too busy working.
She must be a natural talent; you can tell by the way she’s always out there practicing.
Space awesome. This comment is O.G., dude!
“A related test would be Comprehending Creativity. But here, I blame the artist/musicians etc. who develop public personas of cool to hide the total geek effort into mastering the skills necessary to make it seem like their all about the inspiration while hiding the perspiration. Generally, these people are not too cool to party with us regular joes, they’re too busy working.”
When I used to be a theatre director, I disliked being called a “theatre geek” especially when people used ti as a compliment. I was trying to do this for a living and spent many years studying it professionally, doing internships, etc. To me, geek implies amateur hobbyist. I realize this might be a minority opinion but I am not on to this geek as a compliment thing…
Well, the original meaning of ‘geek’ was a circus performer who’s act typically included biting the heads of chickens. Since, it’s grown to mean anyone with deep knowledge on a subject, as in ‘computer geek,’ so geek as applied to theater at least includes both performance and deep knowledge.
Embrace your inner geek. Inhale the compliments. Be one with the audience.
I agree with much of this post and many of the comments, but do need to add some perspective….
There are two fundamental differences between talking on the phone and being seventy. First, one responds to incentives and the other doesn’t. In other words, the law is attempting to reduce the likelihood of taking a a voluntary, optional action which materially increases chance of harm to self and others. In game theory, the punishment is being threatened in order to change the payoffs and thus discourage risk taking behaviors.
The second difference is that the alternative to using phone is not using phone. The alternative to not letting my mom drive is restricting her to her residence, finding alternative sources of transportation and other external costs.
Food for thought….
That phone use responds to incentives explains why we might penalize phone use. If we really were obsessed with security though, in addition to this, we would take away licenses from others as well, regardless of whether it creates an incentive or not.
As an example, consider the internment of Japanese Americans. Even though it created no incentives to stop being Japanese, we decided the security benefits justified it.
> The alternative to not letting my mom drive is restricting her to her residence
I’m in agreement with you that a society should probably consider what happens to people who lose their license. A genuinely security-obsessed society wouldn’t though. Someone would find the picture of the family of four killed by the last Granny who we couldn’t bare to inconvenience. We don’t do that though. And I think we purposefully avoid stories like that because it would force us to confront the fact that we don’t care about security nearly as much as we think we do. We need the lie to be preserved.
And again I agree with your central point.
Another way to state my case is that there are costs and benefits to taking actions to reduce risk. The benefits in terms of safety are the same. The costs are quite different. It is rational for us to consider not just absolute risk, but the costs of achieving this level.
The point I was trying to make (which I think is compatible with yours) is that we don’t simply weigh various costs and their corresponding security benefits. There are costs that we are unwilling to incur even if the benefits justify them because they are unpalatable (and not just because they are costly).
Do you think we should be a (more) security-obsessed society?
Nope, I don’t.
Actually, I’ll dissent from this a tad.
I think we should be a more security-educated society. The obsession part we could probably do without, until we get the educated part first.
Vikram, this is a good post. It ties into, a bit, my last paragraph:
We want to grow old. We want to drive when we do. So it remains safe. Just like how we want to eat in the car, but since most of us don’t smoke in the car, than any risk posed will, I suspect, be deemed too much at some point in the future.
So yeah, there is definitely a caveat in there. We do accept risk when it is our desired freedom we are trying to preserve.
I think trust is a huge element as well.
“No one should be allowed to do anything that might distract them while driving.”
“But just last week you got a hummer while driving.”
“Well, yea, but see, I know myself… I trust myself… I know I am no more or less safe driving while getting a hummer than when not getting one. But that guy over there? Yea, he looks like the kinda slob who’d bend down to pick up a dropped French fry on the floor while navigating rush hour traffic. That guy should definitely be barred from eating while driving. Me? Not so much.”
There is probably a term for this… something with the word “fallacy” in it… but I don’t know what it is.
Will, that’s a lot of long-term thinking you are crediting voters with.
Especially since just because we are letting almost everyone drive now doesn’t mean that future generations will be as permissive with us.
I also want to clarify: I am not suggesting an age-based test, but a capability-based test. The test may end up being discriminatory, but it would not be designed to be so.
I don’t think it’s a utilitarian calculation. I think it’s an empathetic calculation. People can relate to old people wanting to drive, because they want to be old and drive, so we have to accept some risk. The cannot relate to those who want to talk on the phone will they drive*, because they don’t really have any pressing desire talk on their cell phones and drive, so no amount of risk is acceptable.
* – Except those that do. But they’ll continue to do so anyway. Which is fine, because they know that they can do so safely. It’s the other drivers that need to follow the law.
Sorta reminds me of this old joke, though with safety rather than morality at issue:
Old Mrs. Tompkins loved to hear a fiery sermon. She would ensconce her comfortable bulk in the pew, rock back and forth in time to the minister’s cadences, take a dip of snuff, and cry, “A-a-a-amen,” at every piece of ministerial denunciation.
When the minister spoke harshly of sex, drinking, smoking, drug-taking, dancing, and gum-chewing, she approved heartily, taking snuff at each item and emitting her rolling “A-a-a-amen.”
Finally the minister began, “And now let me talk about another vicious habit that, fortunately, is going increasingly out of fashion. I refer to the deplorable practice of snuff-dipping —”
Whereupon Mrs. Tompkins sat bolt upright and muttered under her breath, “Wouldn’t you know? He’s stopped preaching and begun meddling.”
Ha! I’ll have to use that. We see the same thing in schools all the time.
“Schools shouldn’t indoctrinate children! That’s not their role.”
“Oh… so I shouldn’t teach them not to push?”
“Well, no… do that… just don’t indoctrinate them with anything I don’t like.”
It applies to so many situations. And it’s a good one for accomplished joke-tellers — instead of that quick summary in the second paragraph, you can channel your inner preacherman and improv some sermonettes on each one of the listed sins.
If Granny doesn’t drive herself, one of us will have to.
Would you rather take 2 hours out of your day to drive her around or would you rather take the chance that she hits somebody else?
I’ve a guess as to our revealed preferences, of course…
Revealed preference does show that we have buses available for the handicapped in small cities and upward. We are driving them around even if no single one of us is doing the driving.
Of course, if we were to expand the service from the handicapped to anyone who is unable to pass a driver’s test, we might not choose to extend services to them.
Think about it in cost-benefit terms. The cost of not texting while driving is fairly low, as is the cost of not driving while drunk. The cost of giving up driving altogether is much higher. It’s possible that the benefits from reduced accidents due to not texting while driving are greater than the cost of giving up texting while driving, while the benefits from reduced accidents due to 70-year-olds not driving are less than the cost of them giving up driving altogether. So it makes sense to ban the former rather than the latter. That’s an empirical question, of course, but it’s plausible.
Do you think that people have really examined what the benefits of texting are?
(What you say makes sense. I’m just doubtful that the people who decide these things are doing the calculation in the way you describe here. I think Will’s “empathic calculation” above is more plausible.)
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