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The urge to regulate distracted driving could reach down into your smartphone [Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason; Marc Scribner, CEI]


“…whether you want one or not.” [Zenon Evans, Reason, earlier here and here] Congress mandated in 2007 via the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act — remember, laws named after victims are usually bad laws — that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, develop rules mandating such cameras in order to reduce the rate at which drivers backing up inadvertently run over persons behind them, sometimes their own infant family members. It delayed doing so, in part, because of the regulation’s exceedingly high cost — $2.7 billion by one estimate — and because the estimated ratio of lives saved to costs inflicted fell well below the agency’s own standardized threshold for action. Still, the text of the law forced its hand.

My Cato colleague Peter Van Doren, editor of Regulation, notes that “in this case, NHTSA was responding to its own analysis that determined (p. 143) that driver error is the major determinant of the effectiveness of backup assist technologies including cameras.” Former regulatory oversight director Cass Sunstein, at Bloomberg View, offers a view somewhat more sympathetic toward the regulation.

By making cars materially more expensive, the rule will make it harder for many poorer households without cars to graduate to car ownership. A new Urban Institute study by Rolf Pendall, Evelyn Blumenberg, and Casey Dawkins tends to reinforce the intuitively plausible notion that wage earners who succeed in acquiring cars have significantly better chances of making economic progress:

Housing voucher recipients with cars tended to live and remain in higher-opportunity neighborhoods — places with lower poverty rates, higher social status, stronger housing markets, and lower health risks. Cars are also associated with improved neighborhood satisfaction and better employment outcomes. Among Moving to Opportunity families, those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed.

Since poverty takes a toll in health and life expectancy, safety-enhancing mandates that drive up the price of cars have negative as well as positive health impacts.


“As a big employer that the government made a big bet on, ‘GM starts off in a position where institutional Washington has to be rooting for it to come through,’ said Larry Kamer, a public affairs strategist who worked in the past for GM and Toyota.” [Washington Post, related] Talk about spotting a dangerous defect that needs fixing…

Imagine how much they might have gotten if the cars had actually been suddenly accelerating! “Do We Really Want To Regulate This Way?” asks Daniel Fisher [Forbes]

Raised on Hoecakes catches a NHTSA impaired-driving program telling a whopper:


“If you are arrested, you will be prosecuted and likely lose your license, money and car.”

As Raised on Hoecakes says:

“Cool, huh? Only one problem: it isn’t true. Someone missed the memo telling judges to make arrests for DUI a resulting conviction 100% of the time.” In Florida, to take one state he says is representative, there were 55,722 DUI tickets and 33,625 DUI convictions in 2011, and although not all cases are closed the same year they begin, the estimated conviction rate still must run closer to 60 percent than 100 percent. Nor is it true that all arrests result in prosecution: prosecutors decline to press some charges where they deem the evidence in hand to be weak, and almost everyone, with the possible exception of certain hosts of TV crime shows, agrees that’s as it should be.

I suppose the generous way to interpret untruths like the ones on this poster would be as a fancier way to say, “Don’t drive drunk, you’ll get caught.” But they also send a rather more disturbing message: “If arrested on DUI and you believe the government’s case against you is weak, better not fight, just take a plea. Because it doesn’t matter how strong your defense is, a judge won’t save you.”

Presumably that second message is unintentional. [More: Scott Greenfield]


We now know that the panicky tales of electronics-driven sudden acceleration in Toyotas, as urged on the nation by trial lawyer allies like Clarence Ditlow and Joan Claybrook, were sheerest fantasy. That’s no real surprise, since earlier reports of mechanically arising sudden acceleration in Audis and other brands of automobile (also urged on the nation by Ditlow et al.) proved equally imaginary.

But the media never learns, and if they don’t, why should the government? So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing a rule that would require all auto designs to include “override” systems which shut off the accelerator if the brake is pressed. This will have no effect at all on typical “sudden acceleration” accidents, which arise from drivers’ hitting the wrong pedal, since those drivers already imagine themselves to be hitting the brake. They will have little if any effect on the extremely rare floor mat entrapment cases in which an accelerator gets trapped in the depressed position, because drivers can already overcome such acceleration by pressing the brake pedal if it is available, while if it is not available because of mats or other obstructions, the efficacy of the override may fall short of what is hoped.

But at least the government will be able to say that it did something.

I did find it interesting in the Washington Post account that Ditlow seems for the moment to have joined the rest of us in agreeing that pedal misapplication is the big cause of these accidents, the better to afford him a vantage point to criticize NHTSA for Not Doing Enough on that front. That’s quite a change from what you hear from him at the height of these panics, when he tends to talk up every possible cause of unwanted acceleration other than driver error. When the next sudden-acceleration panic breaks out, I fully expect CAS to be back pitching the electronics theories again.

P.S. Plaintiff’s lawyer and longtime Overlawyered favorite Steve Berman asserts that there have been “thousands of crashes, hundreds of deaths,” a claim the National Law Journal’s Amanda Bronstad relays without skeptical comment.


March 2 roundup

by Walter Olson on March 2, 2012

  • Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who crusades against distracted driving, worsens the problem by honking at motorists he sees using phones [WTOP via Mike Riggs, Reason] Expensive new mandate for back-up cameras in cars may be delayed until after election [Ira Stoll and more, Ann Althouse]
  • With reporter Lee Stranahan, the late Andrew Breitbart shone an investigative spotlight on the USDA’s billion-dollar settlement with lawyers representing black farmers, and there was indeed much to investigate [Big Government]
  • Substance on floor may have been own baby oil: “Oiled Stripper Loses Slip and Fall Lawsuit” [Erik Magraken; B.C., Canada; related on-the-job pole-dance injuries here and here]
  • Honeywell’s new thermostat design deserves high marks, its patent litigation maybe not so much [Farhad Manjoo, Slate]
  • Socialism takes too many evenings: @ChadwickMatlin live-tweets Park Slope Food Co-op meeting [The Awl]
  • Auto bailout a success? Really? [Mickey Kaus, Todd Zywicki, Ted Frank, Prof. Bainbridge]
  • Way to go Maryland: proud of my state for enacting law recognizing same-sex marriage, signed by Gov. O’Malley yesterday [WaPo]


March 21 roundup

by Walter Olson on March 21, 2011

  • “Cleveland Browns lawyer letter is apparently real” [Lowering the Bar, earlier]
  • “Headlines of the Apocalypse: ‘Lady Gaga eyes legal action over breast milk ice cream.’” [@vsalus re: Breitbart via @EdDriscoll]
  • Chesley discipline prospects in Kentucky fen-phen scandal: “King of Torts Dethroned” [Laura Simons, Abnormal Use]
  • Busy construction-defect lawyers vex Fresno builders [Bee, Business Journal]
  • “NHTSA Postpones Back-Up Camera Requirement Rule” [The Truth About Cars, earlier]
  • Lawyers in Italy call strike to protest law requiring mediation of commercial disputes [WSJ Law Blog]
  • NYT’s Mark Bittman has a magical touch with food (alas) [Patrick at Popehat]
  • Beasley Allen lawyers sluiced $850K to Alabama GOP judicial contender [Birmingham News via PoL]

I explain at Cato at Liberty.

P.S. Also, welcome listeners from Richmond, Va.’s WRVA, which had me on to discuss these issues this morning. And a retrospective on the Toyota scare from The Truth About Cars’ Edward Niedermeyer.

The Washington Post — unlike some other newspapers we might think of — doesn’t mind letting its editorial stance catch up with the facts on the ground as they appear to NHTSA staff. We’ve been on the story for quite a while.


A new report in the WSJ quotes a retiring NHTSA official as saying higher-ups are refusing to release the results of the agency’s staff investigation into charges of Toyota sudden acceleration, because those findings are not unfavorable enough toward the automaker. I’ve got more detail in a new post at Cato at Liberty, and Ted covers the story at PoL.

Meanwhile, proponents of a sweeping expansion of federal auto safety law, one that would thrust Washington much more deeply into the operations of the automotive industry, are really in a hurry — a quick, urgent, must-do-now hurry — to pass it, even though many of its provisions have not had much airing in public debate. An editorial today in the New York Times — a newspaper that almost comically underplayed the revelations earlier this month about the NHTSA probe’s pro-Toyota results — flatly asserts that the Japanese automaker’s vehicles suffer “persistent problems of uncontrolled acceleration,” and demands that the sweeping new legislation “be passed into law without delay.” It’s almost as if they are afraid of what might happen if lawmakers pause to take a closer look.

Among the many other things the new legislation would do is greatly enhance the legal leverage of automaker or dealership employees who adopt the mantle of “whistleblowers”. But if the new revelations from a responsible career employee of NHTSA are ignored, we will have another confirmation that some types of whistleblowing are more welcome in America’s governing class than others. (& welcome Coyote, Gabriel Malor, Death by 1000 Papercuts, Mark Hemingway/D.C. Examiner (“the indispensable Overlawyered blog”), Allen McDuffee/Think Tanked readers).


Courtesy Michael Fumento.

P.S. More seriously, Fumento has a piece out in the new Forbes about how weaknesses in the NHTSA consumer database helped fuel the Toyota panic. He provides damning details about how press outlets like CBS News, the L.A. Times and U.S. News turned “a motley collection of anecdotes, many of them absurd” in which “anybody can enter anything” into assertions that Toyota acceleration has “caused” or “led to” 89 or more deaths. Read it here, with more at CEI.

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June 11 roundup

by Walter Olson on June 11, 2010

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Except that even a cursory reading of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s news release should have kept the magazine from jumping to any such conclusion. Michael Fumento explains.

Michael Fumento warns that the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “has no category for ‘sudden acceleration,’ merely a ‘speed control’ category.” The result is that many complaints of lack of acceleration can wind up getting counted and cited as if they supported the trial lawyers’ case.

March 6 roundup

by Walter Olson on March 6, 2010


February 18 roundup

by Walter Olson on February 18, 2010

The Truth About Cars has the details. I’ve got a bunch of background links at Point of Law.