Not every problem is truly a disaster

Published on Tuesday, 8 October 2013 20:21 - Written by

Whether it’s the government shutdown or climate change, there’s money to be made in fear. Bureaucrats, lobbyists, journalists, even salespeople tend to overstate problems to assure the public’s compliance in “solving” them (usually with more funding).

The usually sober Carl Cannon of RealClearPolitics is only echoing former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s words when he says “distracted driving” is a “deadly epidemic,” but his recent essay advances the same narrative. We don’t just have problems anymore, we have epidemics, disasters and apocalypses.

Distracted driving is a problem. Texting while driving should be discouraged.

But when we overstate problems, we can actually make things worse, because people stop listening. That’s the conundrum faced by Washington, as it finds less and less leverage in government shutdowns and perhaps even reaching the debt ceiling limit. No one believes D.C. officials anymore — after all, wasn’t the world supposed to end when the “sequestration” hit?

Cannon opens his essay with the details of a bus crash near Mount Vernon in Virginia. Investigators wanted to know why two buses had collided.

“The short answer is that the man was talking to his sister on a hands-free cellular phone,” Cannon explains. “The longer answer, which extends to professional pilots, boat captains and train engineers — as well as operators of motor vehicles — is known by many names. Aviation experts talk of ‘situational awareness.’ Psychologists parse the concept of ‘cognitive overload.’ University of Utah researcher David Strayer talks of ‘inattention blindness.’ We know it today, largely through the efforts of former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, under the broad heading of ‘distracted driving.’”

But it’s not a new problem, he acknowledges.

In 1928, George Parker was appointed registrar of motor vehicles for the state of Massachusetts.

“He led an utterly unsuccessful crusade against car radios,” Cannon reports. “Asserting that radios were a menace because they distracted the attention of drivers away from the road, Parker told Bay State newspapers in January 1930 that he planned to order a removal of all car radios in Massachusetts.”

And distracted driving, in its various forms, have continued to be a concern to officials since then.

There’s no question it’s a valid concern. But is it an epidemic? That word connotes a widespread and growing pattern of occurrences, often with fatal consequences.

In fact, traffic deaths are down dramatically in the United States.

“Distracted driving may be an increasing danger on our roads, but according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, preliminary figures indicate that traffic fatalities are heading down in 2013,” the safety blog of reports. “The numbers fell quite a bit during the first three months of this year, leading the agency to predict around a 4.4 percent decrease compared to 2012’s numbers.”

This follows years of declines (with a statistical uptick in 2012).

Again, distracted driving is a bad thing, and we should continue to teach young drivers (and older ones) about its dangers.

But we’ve got to stop crying wolf. When everything is an epidemic, then nothing is.