Unfortunately, policymakers rarely use tools like risk tradeoff analysis, and they generally don't consider risk tradeoffs that happened in the past. Instead, they tend to focus only on the risk directly in front of them, ignoring other rising (and also falling) risks that occur in tandem.
A bill targeting distracted driving in New Jersey has caused a bit of an uproar recently. The potential law would ban drivers from engaging in "any" activity unrelated to driving that might interfere with the safe operation of a vehicle. Some have argued that its language is so expansive that drinking a cup of coffee while driving would be banned, with violators subject to hundreds of dollars in fines.
Distracted driving is clearly a problem, but before proceeding, New Jersey legislators should consider the side effects such a law might unintentionally create. If legislators are not careful, they could well end up increasing, rather than decreasing, risks to New Jersey drivers.
The distracted driving bill has the potential to create what economists call "risk tradeoffs," which occur when the mitigation of one risk simultaneously increases the risk of another. This bill addresses an all-too-real danger, but any law that prevents people from drinking coffee behind the wheel is going to increase at least one other risk: the risk created by drowsy drivers on the roads.