DRI-365 for week of 4-14-13: The Pattern of the Anointed Strikes Again, Part Two

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Pattern of the Anointed Strikes Again

The previous EconBrief related “The Pattern of the Anointed” – the social theory of the great black economist Thomas Sowell. This pattern describes the perverse cycle of crisis, policy solution, result and response by the dominant elite, who consider themselves anointed to dictate the course of our lives. Not only do the big-government solutions prescribed by the anointed fail to alleviate the perceived crisis, but they actually make the situation worse.

To add insult to injury, we subsequently learn that the crisis never existed in the first place. The unfortunate circumstances represented as a crisis in desperate need of federal-government intervention were really an improving situation – which federal intervention worsened.

Sowell elaborated three classic case histories of the Pattern, each taken from the rise of big government in the 1960s: the War on Poverty, the ubiquity of sex education in public elementary and secondary schools and the Warren Court’s “criminal rights” revolution of the 1960s and early 70s.

Alas, the Pattern is alive and well and thriving in the United States today. A current, ongoing example is provided by the regulatory and legislative jihad against “distracted driving.”

Background: Annual Driving Fatalities in the United States

For nearly a century, one of the leading causes of accidental death each year in the United States has been motor-vehicle accident. In 2011, over 30,000 people lost their lives from this cause. Statistics from 2012 are slow coming out, but extrapolation based on third-quarter figures suggest that last year saw the first rise in motor-vehicle deaths since 2005. This would also result in an increase in the fatality rate, calculated as the average number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. This would be regrettable under any circumstances but it is extremely puzzling in historical context.

The trend in highway fatalities has been level or downward since 1988, with only small increases and an overall decline from about 47,000 yearly deaths to about 32,000. Evaluating in terms of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled – a much more accurate measure of driving safety – the trend is even more striking. In 1921, this figure stood at 24.1. By 2011, it had fallen to 1.05. The trend over that 90-year period was sharply downward, a few increases being interspersed with steady declines. (The most accurate measure of all is fatal accidents per 100 million miles traveled, but this figure is often unavailable.)

This context is what makes 2012 so startling. Previously, we had a very long and relatively continuous period of declining deaths and steadily improving safety. Then in 2012 we have an abrupt interruption and reversal of this trend just as it had reached an apex. Even more unlikely, the increase in fatalities came during a time of economic adversity, when people drive less and fatalities normally decline. Explaining the trend is hard enough; explaining the reversal is even harder.

Still, an economic detective has instinct and experience to go on. Long-term beneficial trends are usually the outcome of free markets. Sudden downturns into decline usually showcase the visible hand of government at work.

The “Crisis”

The reality of driving safety forms the backdrop against which government pushed a crisis agenda with driving safety as its rationale. That agenda was pursued on two fronts. The first was professional.

When the Obama administration came to power in 2009, it inherited a revamped plan for trucking-safety regulation called “Comprehensive Safety Analysis.” Since it was due to take effect in 2010, it acquired the shorthand tag CSA 2010. In the event, full implementation of CSA 2010 was delayed until 2011. Ostensibly, it was designed to improve trucking safety by more thoroughly evaluating motor carriers and truck drivers utilizing modern statistical techniques.

CSA 2010 had two predecessors, “SafeStat” and SAFER. SafeStat included data on accidents and moving violations based on state and local enforcement. Unfortunately, the data was questionable; enforcement and terminology varied widely between jurisdictions. SAFER employed date from compliance reviews conducted on the basis of random samples. While this improved the quality of the data, it left most carriers unscrutinized and ignored outside data. Federal regulators felt that neither of these two systems produced results reliable enough to allow the public to gauge the safety of motor carriers or drivers.

CSA 2010 applied a statistical approach by considering all data on all carriers and drivers. It developed a statistical data base and assigned safety ratings to companies and drivers. (The former were released to the public, the latter made available only to companies.)

In addition to CSA 2010, the Department of Transportation urged companies to test drivers for health conditions such as sleep apnea. Its avowed aim was to rid the industry of unsafe companies and unsafe drivers. The tacit premise behind this push was that market competition was not equal to this task.

The second prong of the government’s safety approach was pointed toward the general public and given the label “distracted driving.” Two forms of behavior have been singled out for condemnation as uniquely distracting to drivers of motor vehicles – the use of cellphones and texting.

The campaign against cellphone use by drivers accelerated markedly with the accession of the Obama administration. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood vowed to ban cellphone use in cars. So far, bans on cellphone use by all drivers have been legislated by 10 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia. School-bus drivers have been denied the use of cellphones in 19 states and D.C. Texting bans have been even more popular, gaining legislative approval in 39 states and D.C. Bans for teenage drivers only have passed in 5 states. School-bus drivers have been forbidden to text in 3 states.

While cellphone research has distinguished between the distraction afforded by dialing and conversing, the impact of the distinction on the public debate is unclear. The greater restrictions placed on texting may reflect this. The really remarkable outgrowth of research, though, is the devastating effect it has had on the government’s position.

The Results: Once Again, the Pattern’s Effects are Perverse

Thomas Sowell pointed out that the results of the Pattern of the Anointed are doubly ironic: Not only is the supposed crisis giving rise to government action non-existent, but the results of the action actually make the situation worse.

In this case, we have seen that no driving safety crisis existed. Over the long term, both highway fatalities and fatalities per 100 million miles have been declining steadily as long as the data have been collected. In the short term, deaths have been falling since 2005 and the fatality rate has been falling for over 15 years.

What is more, these declines have been occurring alongside the growth in driver distractions that supposedly constituted the crisis. According to one of the most reliable sources of highway safety data, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as of June 2012, cellphone subscribership was up 240% since June 2002 and 32% since June 2009. The 2.3 trillion minutes of cellphone use constituted an 18% increase since June 2009. Text messages were 9 times greater in number than in June 2007.

If cellphone use and texting are a driver distraction – and research suggests at least some support for this – why didn’t this distraction cause the fatality rate to increase, or at least halt its decrease, during this decade? Perplexing as this question might be to the anointed, it cannot begin to compete with the next one.

Research also shows that cellphone bans have been effective in reducing cellphone use. In at least one state (New York), fatalities even fell after its cellphone ban. But neither cellphone bans nor texting bans were effective in reducing fatalities; in fact, they increased fatalities compared to states with no bans. Since fatalities have been falling for decades even before the bans, it is no good to simply assume that the bans caused further declines. The only basis for evaluation is to compare results after the bans in states with bans and without them. These comparisons shows that the bans were never effective and were actually counterproductive – or, more precisely, the post-ban comparisons were unfavorable to the states where bans were in place.

Shifting focus to trucking regulation, we find similar results. When trucking regulation was so ineffective that regulators refused to certify the SafeStat and SAFER databases for public use, highway fatality rates fell continuously for over a decade. When the Obama administration oiled up its regulatory CSA 2010 machine and sent it out onto the road to improve trucking safety, fatality rates went up abruptly in the year (2012) after the new regime went into effect.

The Pattern of the Anointed strikes again!

What’s Going On?

As previously noted, it’s easy to explain the perversity of this pattern by citing historical precedents and comparing the relative merits and historical record of free markets and government. It’s a little harder, however, to diagram the nuts and bolts of a process that would explain this particular case.

For example, it is not entirely clear what accounts for the long-term trend toward improving safety and declining fatalities. Could this be explained by (say) seat-belt use or protective highway barriers? No, and not just because these things came along long after the trend was underway. Motor-vehicle accidents (crashes) have declined along with fatalities – from well over 600 million in the mid-1990s to just above 500 million today, for example – and factors reducing the severity of the crash’s effects would have no effect on this aspect of driving safety.

Certainly we can identify some factors involved. Better road design and signage have obviously made a difference. In the 1930s, vehicle-equipment failure accounted for over 30% of official accident causes, whereas today that figure is around 2%. But these cannot account for the steady, continuous declines we have seen. Demographic factors should be important; the baby-boom generation may have had some responsibility for a five-year period of upward blips in the fatality rate starting in the early 1960s, for example. But we should also note that this coincided with the federal government’s first big regulatory push for auto safety, so we cannot rule out the Pattern for the Anointed as the prime mover in this period.

Many observers feared that CSA 2010 would cause fearful attrition in the ranks of truck drivers. Estimates among industry professionals ranged from 3-20%, with 5-8% forming a consensus view. The COO of Werner Enterprises was quoted as saying that two of his best drivers, with 7.4 million accident-free miles between them, would be classified as “unsafe” under the CSA guidelines. How could this be?

In formulating its statistical risk evaluation, CSA includes all violations on the driver’s and carrier’s record. In addition to serious moving violations, it includes minor technical violations like late submission of logs and late reporting for drug tests, even when no negative repercussions result from these violations.

These kinds of things make up a part of the regulatory burden placed on the industry by the Obama administration. The fact that the profession of truck driver faces a future limited by the advent of driverless vehicles puts a two-way squeeze on the trucking industry. On one side, older drivers are being squeezed out by regulation. On the other side, the influx of youth that would ordinarily be forthcoming from driving schools and new entrants to the labor force is not forthcoming because the handwriting on the wall has warned them against a career as a truck driver. The pool of drivers is made up of the least attractive applicants, resulting in a case where the best, most experienced drivers are exiting and a less attractive crop of applicants is replacing them. We can hypothesize that this has affected driver safety unfavorably.

While the perverse effects of cellphone and texting bans are less easily explained, one possible answer lies in the evasive measures taken by drivers seeking to avoid detection. Concealing the communication device decreases the ease of use and increases the time and attention diverted from driving itself, thereby detracting from safety and promoting accidents. In this regard, we should recall that texting is heavily practiced by the youngest drivers. Research with drug use has firmly established the “rebound effect” – wherein young drug users deliberately reject laws and admonitions intended to control their behavior – as an important motivation. The rebound effect may be behind the perverse effects of texting bans as well.

Free Market vs. Government – Again

The phenomenon of “distracted driving” may seem like the fad of the month, but it has been with us as long as the automobile itself. When radios became standard equipment in passenger automobiles rather than merely optional extras – that is, in the 1940s – accidents caused by drivers tuning their car radios and changing channels were highly publicized. Car radios were viewed in some circles as a triviality and a luxury that was not worth the price – e.g., a potential loss of life.

Gradually, radios became an accepted part of driving an automobile, although radio never quite outran the stigma of being a potential distraction. In this vein, we should recall the example of taxicab drivers, who for decades utilized two-way radios in their cabs as a means of communicating with their companies to receive passenger-trip assignments and other duties. Cab drivers routinely learned to listen to their taxi radio while driving and talking with passengers, and to talk to their dispatcher to acknowledge receipt of messages and communicate important information of various kinds. The degree of distraction faced by today’s drivers seems mild compared to that endured by yesterday’s taxi drivers, who nevertheless seem to have caused comparatively little harm to life and property.

Taxicab drivers learned to cope with distractions because they had to, not because they were ordered to by government. They developed their own sets of coping mechanisms to suit their own talents and personalities. They responded incrementally, as they were allowed to by free markets. Government orders, in contrast, do not allow us the flexibility to cope. That is a big reason why markets work so much better than governments.

Somewhere, Thomas Sowell is nodding his head at this latest proof that the Pattern of the Anointed is still weaving its fabric of failure through our lives.

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