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September 11th, 2009:

Is it time to ban carpooling?

Carpools Only

Is carpooling a threat to your family?

It took the police almost an hour to arrive at the scene of the accident. The dark red Saturn with its crumpled front end and my 2001 VW GTI with its smashed side panels and broken rear axle had already been cleared from the road. Shattered glass and the remnants of my passenger-side mirror still littered the street.

Fortunately, the only injuries where some bumps and bruises, but it could have been much worse.

Like most Americans, I knew I was a better-than-average driver. Up until that point in 2006, I had driven tens of thousands of miles in the five years since I got my license—eating, texting and talking on the phone much of the way. I thought nothing could distract me from the road. That is, until one night when a friend and I decided to carpool.

I was deep in conversation and did not see the Saturn pulling out of the parking lot on my right. By the time I glanced at the road it was too late. Though I swerved, I could not avoid the car and was T-boned in the left-hand turn lane. Was the accident my fault? Not entirely. Could I have avoided it had I not been distracted? Almost certainly.

It is not news to anyone that distractions are a leading cause of car accidents. It’s hardly been challenged that the recent New York Times-led hysteria about the need to ban the use of cell phones constitutes an urgent public issue, but there’s an even more menacing threat to the public good that you don’t know about—and it’s lurking in the carpool lane.

According to a 2006 study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, having a passenger in the car can be just as dangerous as talking on the phone. And the study found that drivers spend a lot more time talking to passengers than they do talking on their phones. The dangers presented by driving with passengers—or carpooling—are well known. According to Robert Wilson of the National Safety Council, limiting the number of passengers is critical to safety, particularly for young drivers. “One passenger…increases the risk. Two, you know, triples the risk. Three or more passengers is a party.”

In an effort to eliminate the added risk of carpooling, 41 states have restrictions on the number of passengers teen drivers can have in the car. But the risks of carpooling do not disappear with age.

However, our laws do not seem to recognize that. Despite the fact that risk of accidents increases with each additional passenger in the car, many states and municipalities not only fail to regulate carpooling but actively encourage it through separate high-occupancy vehicle lanes and other initiatives. What does this mean? Are we trading lives to ease congestion? Was Driving Miss Daisy really that dangerous? Should the paper of record crusade against giving your neighbor a lift to work?

These, of course, are pressing questions for us all.

The truth is, despite the proliferation of cell phones and rampant carpooling, driving in America has never been safer. But if banning the use of cell phones in cars is suddenly a top priority, surely we should take steps to curtail the equally, if not more, dangerous practice of carpooling as well.

After all, banning carpooling will not only eliminate the risk of distraction, but the increased congestion that would likely result would lower average vehicle speeds thus rendering any accidents that did occur less likely to be fatal.

I feel confident that the New York Times will soon call for a carpooling ban and that our legislative leaders will quickly respond. In the meantime, I am banishing all passengers from my car. If you need to reach me while I’m driving, you can get me on my cell phone.

(Hat tip: Kevin)


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