Texting and Driving: High Opportunity Cost & Negative Externalities

Miranda Walker- Honorbound

Texting and driving is a major problem in the United States.  This well-known issue is the “second-most dangerous thing you can do while driving a car, next to driving drunk.”[i]  Most people who participate in the distracting act of texting do not realize the consequences of their actions until it is too late.  When weighing their options between checking their phone to answer a text or continuing to drive, most people will want to check their phone because they erroneously think the opportunity cost of not checkingoutweighs the opportunity cost of checking their phone.  Opportunity cost is what is being given up in order to do something else.  If someone decides to answer a text, their opportunity cost is their safety and the safety of others.  If someone decides to play it safe and not check their phone, the opportunity cost is not being able to immediately look at their phone.  Many people delude themselves into thinking that texting and driving is only a risk to themselves, and as long as they drive safely, they will stay safe.  This brings forth the question, why should people stop texting and driving, and what is their incentive to stop?

In Economics, there is a term that describes actions made at a private cost that affect people who are not intended to be affected.  These “third party people” are not given a choice about the action, but they simply receive effects of the action.  These “effects” are called externalities.  Externalities can be positive or negative; for example, a positive externality is something unexpectedly good that happens to a third party person or group of people, while a negative externality is something unexpectedly bad that happens to a third party person or group of people.

In the circumstance of texting and driving, this is not only dangerous to the driver, but also to anyone else in the car, people driving other cars, and pedestrians walking in range of the car.  According to the National Safety Council, there are 1,600,000 accidents per year due to texting and driving.[ii]  If a driver gets into an accident because of texting while driving, the driver not only risks their own safety, but the safety of every other “third party person” involved in the accident.  This is a very clear example of a negative externality because of the fact that an individual, the texting driver in this case, “[has] an incentive to [text] at the expense of others.”[iii]  These other people’s health and lives are at risk because of this externality.  Is the value of life really worth less than a text message?

At this point, the government’s role becomes extremely significant.  In severe cases of negative externalities such as this one, “the government regulates the affected activity.”[iv]  This means that the government is there to support the citizens who are being strongly affected by negative externalities by creating laws and regulations to protect these people.  In the United States there are “currently, 46 states… [that] ban text messaging for all drivers.”[v]  With laws against texting and driving, the opportunity cost of texting and driving increases, hopefully giving people the incentive to stop texting and driving.  If awareness is raised and laws are made, maybe more people will be motivated to stop this practice and drive more safely.

[i] Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 57.

[ii] “Texting and Driving Statistics” Texting and Driving Statistics, accessed June 15, 2016,http://www.textinganddrivingsafety.com/texting-and-driving-stats.

[iii] Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 55.

[iv] Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 59.

[v] “Distracted Driving Laws,” State Distracted Driving Driving Laws, accessed June 15, 2016,http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html.

(Image:) Megan Bentzen, “Texting and Driving,” Digital image, #6 Texting & Driving,accessed June 15, 2016, https://sites.wp.odu.edu/meganpsychmonarch19/2015/10/29/6-texting-driving/.



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