Chicago is considering a law requiring seatbelts or other type of restraints for pets in vehicles. The reason for this is the distraction unrestrained pets can cause drivers behind the wheel. Such a law strikes some as common sense, but not everyone.
I drive with unrestrained pets in my car. As someone who loves all animals but especially dogs I am aware of the risks. I’ve had a flying lab-border collie mix and a min pin missile inside the car during sudden stops, and recognize the potential danger I put these animals in whenever we “go bye-bye.” Restraining them properly in the vehicle is in their best interest, and because of that I am going to change my behavior, not because the State threatens to fine me. The guilt from the pain I’ve caused one of my animals is much worse than any fine the State can levy.
But the purpose of the law isn’t the danger people like me put their animals in: it’s the danger to others caused by distracted driving. My problem with the law is there are many different types of distracted driving. Recently a young man in my area was killed after he reached for a bottled water that rolled between the seats. Are we going to ban unrestrained drinks? Perhaps billionaire Mayor Bloomberg might, but I believe there is a better way. The law is a blunt instrument: legislators cannot foresee every possibility to adequately address each in a law, and therefore the law might make a few people believe the government is doing something while all it is doing is causing trouble for otherwise law-abiding citizens who get pulled over and fined while driving with an unrestrained beagle zonked out in the backseat after a “tutor” appointment at the vet.
The problem isn’t unrestrained dogs or unrestrained water bottles in cars: it’s distracted driving. Now it would be nice if every driver could be free from every possible distraction, from barking lap dogs to billboards, text messages, cute girls, cell phone conversations, intense arguments with passengers, loud music or deep thoughts. But drivers will never find themselves in a perfect distraction-free bubble, so why fight it? We are wasting our time trying to prevent distractions, and worse by legislating against them. For one thing, one of the worst offenders of distracted driving has always been billboards, yet the outdoor advertising industry has successfully killed legislation banning them. For another there will always be cases where something is distracting to some but not all.
I’ve been thinking alot about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Anti-Fragile, and how to apply it to daily life. For those unfamiliar with the book or the concept of anti-fragility, think of it as the old Chinese maxim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Stress breaks fragile systems, but makes anti-fragile systems better. Our immune system is an excellent example of an anti-fragile system. Every virus you’ve been exposed to, whether through childhood immunizations or illnesses you’ve suffered, just make you less likely to become seriously ill from those or related viruses.
Is there a way to apply the concept to driving? We already do: through experience. As the parent of a new driver, one of the challenges I’ve faced is teaching the Kid how to react when driving gets unpredictable. Some parents try to startle their kids to help teach them to react by shouting “STOP!”, others simply drive with their child long enough so that he or she faces unforeseen events such as another driver cutting him off or running a red light. Our experiences behind the wheel teach us to become better drivers through the close calls we’ve had that we never forget. Like nearly falling asleep at the wheel on Interstate 55 in the middle of Illinois, or beginning to accelerate at a light as a car with no lights runs the red light at high speed and misses t-boning my car by mere inches, or zoning out in a day dream and failing to see the lady stopped just ahead.
We can’t pass 500,000 miles of driving experience to our kids, but perhaps we could train them to better handle distractions as in this Farmer’s Insurance commercial highlighting the trouble caused by distracted driving. We should be teaching drivers how to handle distractions while behind the wheel, how to maintain focus no matter how bad the distraction. Are you allergic to bees? What if one stung you while driving? How would you react? Could you remain focused enough to pull over to the side of the road safely? Perhaps instead of banning certain distractions we should be revamping our driver’s education curricula to handle distractions. Driver’s education courses geared towards experienced drivers would also be good, the payoff being lower insurance rates. Such courses would focus on maintaining concentration while driving, teaching how to prioritize attention so that driving always remains at the top, and learning how to avoid slip-ups like reading a billboard that catches the eye or a pretty girl walking down the sidewalk seen in the rear-view mirror, even texting and eating while driving. What matters is not the distraction but maintaining the concentration necessary to drive safely. In that respect the scenario shown in the Farmers Insurance commercial isn’t far off the mark.
Our society has become so legalistic that it’s almost inevitable the solution to a problem becomes a proposed law. Whether it’s something minor like unrestrained dogs in vehicles or tragic such as the Newtown School Massacre, a segment of the populace usually demands somebody do something, usually “for the children,” and our lawmakers are only happy to oblige. But the solution to every problem should not be a legal one; there are far more effective ways of achieving the goal of laws without resorting to them if we as a society only allow ourselves to do so.