Last week, a public service announcement funded by the major telecom giants and directed by Werner Herzog was released as part of a campaign against texting and driving called It Can Wait. The film makes an emotionally wrenching case against texting while driving with simple, personal interviews with the victims, victims’ families and some of the distracted drivers. It is haunting, and if you text and drive, I suggest you watch it.
Personal narratives are one way to make the case, but statistics are another. In fact, I don’t even intend to tell you that you should never text while driving, rather I simply want to create a framework for understanding when it is worth it. My methods are crude, and involve rough judgments. Even with these admissions, I believe this system will produce a clear answer for whether or not you should text and drive in 99.999% of situations. Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Establish a numerical scale by which you can judge each day of your life
Take yesterday, and ask yourself, “how good was it to be alive yesterday?” You don’t have to sugarcoat or be shy. If your existence was completely neutral, we’ll call that a 0. Keep in mind that even your day was meh, your presence may have made life better for friends, family and anyone you interacted with. You also might have made life worse. You might believe that every day you live is inherently good, and thus you would always give a positive score.
How do you score the non-neutral days? You essentially pick an average that allows for a useful range. For simplicity, I’ll say that most days are a 5, but some, like yesterday, when I went to a music festival, are more like 7 or 8. The occasional meh day is more like a 3—still above zero, but nothing to write home about. The days I would put below zero are rare and mostly involve tragedy. Most days, to me, are at least worth a 1.
Step 2: Make your best guess at future days
I like my life, and I expect to continue to like it. I’ll give myself an estimated daily average of 6, going forward, with the vast majority of days at least a 4. Yes, I’m essentially pulling these numbers out of nowhere, but they are a way to quantify general life satisfaction. Sure, one never knows, but we can make some broad guesses.
Step 3: Estimate how many days you have to live
This one is a little macabre, but we need to do it to get an estimated total life score (estimated average score x estimated days to live). I’m 31, and I will estimate I have another 50 years. That’s 18,262 days (I counted the leap years). So, with my estimated average of a day score of 6, that gives me an estimate of 109,572. What does that mean? Nothing really, but we’ll need that number in a moment.
Step 4: Multiply your estimated life score by .001
Why .001? Well, I took the population of the U.S. (313.9 million), divided it by the number of traffic fatalities in 2009 (33,808) to get the chances that any given American will get killed in a traffic accident in a given year. That got a result of .000108 or .0108%. I then multiplied that by 10, which is a low end estimate of how much more likely you are to crash while driving distracted. I subtracted that number from the total likelihood of a crash to isolate distracted driving (the total number includes distracted crashes, but we can ignore that for our purposes) to get .000969, which I rounded up to .001.
Now, to multiply that by my estimated life score, I get 1,096 (rounded up).
Step 5: Acknowledge that there are a million things wrong with this methodology
I could write a longer blog post about how imprecise this all is, but even if it is really really imprecise, the overall conclusion doesn’t really require precision.
Step 6: Text while driving if your day score will be higher than the result of the number you got in Step 5 as a result of your text
This follows from simple betting principles. Multiply risk and reward for each possible scenario and bet the one with the highest product. Based on my previous ratings, a day when I went to a music festival got a 7. My wedding day was, I don’t know, a 30? A 50? Let’s call it a 50, making it 7 times better than the very good day I had yesterday. That seems reasonable enough. To text on my drive home, I want that text to make my day about 20 times better than my wedding day.
So, to text on my way home, the act of texting will have to elevate my day to truly cosmic realms. I will need to transform into bliss itself, a light being that instills the entire world with my luminous love as a result of the text.
And even then, if it was that good a text, I could probably remember it until I got home.