Everyday Economics

Click, Clack, and Car Talk

NPR’s Tappet brothers are wrong about the societal costs of car phones.

Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers of NPR’s Car Talk, have declared war on drivers with cell phones. Their weapon is moral suasion, in the form of bumper stickers that say, “Drive Now, Talk Later.” (The Tappets claim that NPR’s management vetoed their first choice: “Would You Drive Better If I Crammed That Cell Phone Up Your Keister?”) The bumper stickers are aimed not just at drivers but at legislators. The Tappet brothers want a ban on cell phone use by drivers in all 50 states. So far, they’ve met their goal in exactly zero out of 50.

Talking while driving is deadly. Of this there is much evidence and little doubt. Cell phone use increases your accident risk by almost 400 percent. But so what? It’s a big and unwarranted leap from “talking while driving is deadly” to “talking while driving is bad.” After all, lots of things are deadly without being bad. Take driving itself, for example. Just getting behind the wheel (as opposed to staying home in bed) multiplies your accident risk by far more than 400 percent, but so far the Tappets have not proposed to outlaw driving.

Presumably that’s because they recognize that the benefits of driving exceed the costs, even though the costs include tens of thousands of fatalities every year. In other words, the Tappets implicitly recognize that cost-benefit analysis is a legitimate basis for public policy. So you might think they’d welcome a cost-benefit analysis of cell phone use by drivers, at least as a starting point for a discussion. Instead, when just such an analysis came along, the Tappets responded with vitriol, lies, and slander.

The analysis is courtesy of Robert Hahn, Paul Tetlock, and Jason Burnett of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies. They conclude that drivers’ cell phones are indeed deadly but nevertheless (on net) a good thing. On their Web page, the Tappet brothers describe that work thusly: “Here’s an economic analysis that shows the enormous value to the economy of driving and talking. (As long as we don’t factor in the injuries, lost lives, pain and suffering of all those accidents, that is!)”

That description is a slanderous lie. The AEI-Brookings study is all about factoring in the injuries, lost lives, pain and suffering of cell phone-related accidents. The researchers estimate that in 1999, driver use of cell phones caused about 300 fatalities, 38,000 nonfatal injuries, and 200,000 damaged vehicles.

In a 1999 letter to the New York Times, the Tappet brothers refer to one of those 300 fatalities—a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl named Morgan Lee—and ask, “What price has Mr. Hahn plugged into his nice, clean economic model to account for the misery and tears that such outright selfishness has wrought?” If they’d bothered to read the research they’re so quick to criticize, they’d have found the answer: The price is $6.6 million, a widely used standard based on Harvard law professor Kip Viscusi’s analysis of how much people are willing to pay to preserve lives in a variety of contexts.

Pricing out the fatalities at $6.6 million each, and adding in the costs of injuries and vehicle damage, Mr. Hahn and his colleagues estimate that in 1999, cell phone use by drivers caused $4.6 billion worth of damage. That’s the cost of letting drivers use cell phones. But to prove something is bad, it’s not enough to calculate the cost. You’ve got to also calculate the benefit and see which is bigger.

Here’s how Hahn and his colleagues do that: They figure the value of a call is equal to what you’re willing to pay for it minus what you actually pay for it. They estimate willingness to pay from demand studies and actual charges from real-life cell phone bills. They factor in the truism that some calls are more valuable than others and conclude that the cell phone calls made by drivers in 1999 had a total value of $25 billion. That $25 billion benefit beats the $4.6 billion cost, so cell phones for drivers are on net a good thing.

Actually, I don’t buy it, and here’s why: Drivers make a lot of calls that could easily wait for the next rest stop. Those calls shouldn’t count as benefits of legalized talking-while-driving because they’d get made even if talking-while-driving were banned. So—as Hahn et al. acknowledge in a note near the end of their paper—the true benefit of talking-while-driving is probably far less than $25 billion. They still believe it’s well over $4.6 billion, though. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose it’s $10 billion.

Then what would the Tappets’ cherished ban accomplish? Drivers would give up $10 billion in benefits to prevent 300 deaths (plus some injuries and property damage). That’s a lousy deal. The same $10 billion invested in, say, firefighting equipment would save substantially more than 300 lives—conceivably (using Viscusi’s numbers) about five times as many. Instead of taking away drivers’ cell phones, we could confiscate $10 billion, use it to buy fire trucks, and do the world a lot more good.

Or maybe not. The AEI-Brookings study is hardly the last word on the matter. Maybe a more thorough study, with more precise numbers, will show that a cell phone ban does make sense. Or maybe the next study will confirm what Hahn and his colleagues believe. Either way, Click and Clack won’t trouble themselves to read the next study. Their minds are already made up.