Cutting Off the Thumbs of Drivers Using Cell Phones: Pros & Cons

Americans! They’re quite busy, they’ll tell you, and in constant and desperate need of stimulus, and also a way to block the forever empty inside all of us. They also drive everywhere.

When you combine this type of existential dread/listlessness with our star-spangled auto-dependance, you get a situation where anywhere from 75% to 110% of all drivers are actively using their phones while driving. Test it out! Look up from your phone right now at the other drivers–you are all on your phones. You are calling people to discuss nothing, liking pictures of sandwiches on Facebook, and sending 6:00 PM work emails so you can signal that you are the kind of person who sends work emails at 6:00 PM.

Looking down to text “what.” might not seem like a huge distraction, but using the power of the calculator included with all of our computers, here is some math:

If you are driving 40 miles an hour on, say, Portland Avenue, past a park where children are playing, you will travel 176 feet in the three seconds it takes you to send that text.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that a bunch of people are killed and maimed by drivers not paying attention to the road. Killed! Actual lives are destroyed, thousands of them every year all across America. Searching for not more than a few minutes, here are some recent casualties of distracted driving:

1.) Cyclist killed by a North Dakota driver taking a photo of themselves
2.) Cyclist (with kids in a carrier!) killed by a driver about to call his bank
3.) Toddler given traumatic brain injury by a Shakopee teenager reading a text message
4.) 89 year old killed by Facebook enthusiast

Due to various aspects of our legal system, many of these drivers serve negligible jail sentences or no jail sentences at all. The guy who killed the woman while thinking about calling his bank served 120 (!) days in jail.

We sure make it easy. Cars come with wifi now, which is insane, and this is a whole type of photo among trash.

So what are we to do, as a society? One possible solution to this crisis would be to increase penalties on drivers who feel that it is necessary to use their phones while driving. The financial penalty associated with using your phone while driving in Minnesota recently increased. But, looking around, that doesn’t appear to be much of a deterrent. What else can we do to dissuade people?

Cigar Cutter

Well, we could chop off their thumbs.

Which, might seem like a steep penalty for refreshing Instagram while driving down Hennepin Avenue in a several thousand pound steel contraption that can kill people, but also, you, the driving public, have shown yourselves to be callously indifferent to the well-being of those around you. You have lost your thumb privileges. If you are not convinced, here is a detailed analysis of the pro et contra arguments in this situation:


  • Fewer dead and maimed innocent people


  • Lotta extra thumbs
Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

44 thoughts on “Cutting Off the Thumbs of Drivers Using Cell Phones: Pros & Cons

  1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    I realize this is satire (at least, I’m assuming it is). But in the even you were the least bit serious in it, there’s this little thing called the Tenth Amendment…

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Are you concerned that thumb-ectomy is not an enumerated federal power (gotta be a penumbra, or thumbra, if you will)? If not, surely it’s a power reserved to the states.

      But if it’s really a problem, I’m sure we would be fine with just the first nine amendments.

  2. Julie

    Boy, that there sounds like Shareeee-ah law like terrorists like. Positively un-American.

    We need to ship you to a NASCAR race, boy.

  3. Julia

    Reminds me of this terribly reported article:

    Driver kills person with her car. Rather than banning her from driving a car (you know, the reason she killed a person), she’s banned from cell phones. Do we really think that the people who are so easily distracted are great drivers and make safe driving choices if they don’t have cell phones?

    1. Wayne

      It comes back to the bill of rights, where we think not allowing someone to drive is cruel and unusual punishment.

      1. Rosa

        Wayne, are you a blogger elsewhere or active on other planning/bike/pedestrian boards?

        I’m looking for other places with topics like streetsblog.

        1. Wayne

          I just comment here, minnpost, and the forums. I’m no blogger, just a snarky commenter.

  4. Dave

    Mandate two hands on the wheel for everyone? Cutting off the thumbs seems more like a two-strikes thing.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        DC banned using a phone without a hands-free device a long time ago. When I moved back, I couldn’t believe that Minnesota hasn’t yet.

        1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

          In general (and I am not a scientist) I would say that, while looking away from the road is bad, allowing yourself to get lost in something other than the car you are driving is maybe as big of if not a larger problem.

      2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Agree completely. Though we should expand it to distracted driving in general. How do we enforce it? Can we make distracted driving so socially unacceptable that those around us will enforce it?

        1. Rosa

          How about we just start with taking away licenses for a period of time, and requiring some drivers-ed practice before they’re returned, for bad driving?

          This week I came upon the aftermath of a crash where a car had hit the broadside of a school bus. Right in the middle, between the two sets of wheels – the car was still partially wedged under the bus. It looked like it was a slow crash and nobody seemed to be hurt.

          But I would like that person off the road, doing some serious thinking about the responsibilities of driving and maybe getting some practice with a driving instructor. I don’t really care WHY they hit the school bus – texting, daydreaming, trying to sneak around quick to avoid waiting when the bus stopped. It’s just self-evident that they are not a very competent driver and I would like to not share the street with them until they can show more competence.

        2. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

          I’ve…thought about it for a while but lately I’m getting more serious in my own internal meetings about just telling people they’re being selfish and that it’s not okay that they text when I’m in their car. The flipside is that I’m getting a ride so kind of a wash for me personally as a seat-belt wearer

          1. Rosa

            just don’t engage in a big argument while they’re driving.

            I keep seeing that advice that you should have big emotional discussions with your teen while driving them places, and it makes me cringe. Yes! Totally engage in deep emotional issues while you’re supposed to be driving, that’s so safe!

  5. Julia

    It seems to me that we should address dangerous behavior directly. In the case of distracted drivers, it isn’t the distraction that’s the problem, it’s that we weaponize those who are easily distracted or needing to multi-task or overly-confident or enjoy the adrenaline rush.

    Leave them their thumbs. Replace their cars with a bus pass, a bike, and a good pair of walking shoes. For those who live in places where a car is “needed,” we’ll have half-way houses in walkable areas where they can find support, therapy, and new social networks, where they are surrounded by people who encourage them to live a healthier car-free lifestyle and help them break away from enablers trying to pull them back down into car-dependence and hurting their communities.

    1. Ron

      I’ve noticed that many people now put their cell phone by their knees while driving to avoid a ticket. I think this needs a technological solution because people won’t comply on their own.

      1. Ron

        Whoops. Didn’t mean to reply to your comment with this.

        (BTW we should put a 1/2 way house at the refinery in Rosemount MN because those people all drive to work.)

    2. Wayne

      Do they allow texting while on the firing range? It seems like a good analogy. Whoopsie, killed three people taking a selfie while firing a gun!

      1. Wayne

        Oops, I crashed this plane full of people into a mountain because I was playing candy crush saga!

        1. Wayne

          Uh-oh, I crushed a family of four in their house because I was texting while bulldozing next door!

  6. UrbanDoofus

    Why is there no ban on all cell phone use in Minneapolis and St Paul? I recognize each would have to pass their own law. Many larger cities have such a ban in place.

    I get the out state argument that they drive more open roads, but I constantly see people talking or dicking around on phones in the cities all the time, oblivious to the people like me they almost mow down.

  7. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    The law themselves seem to have little effect. See e.g.

    Inj Prev 2004;10:11-15 doi:10.1136/ip.2003.003731

    Original Article
    Longer term effects of New York State’s law on drivers’ handheld cell phone use
    A T McCartt, L L Geary

    Objective: To determine whether substantial short term declines in drivers’ use of handheld cell phones, after a state ban, were sustained one year later.

    Design: Drivers’ daytime handheld cell phone use was observed in four New York communities and two Connecticut communities. Observations were conducted one month before the ban, shortly after, and 16 months after. Driver gender, estimated age, and vehicle type were recorded for phone users and a sample of motorists.

    Intervention: Effective 1 November 2001, New York became the only state in the United States to ban drivers’ handheld cell phone use. Connecticut is an adjacent state without such a law.

    Sample: 50 033 drivers in New York, 28 307 drivers in Connecticut.

    Outcome measures: Drivers’ handheld cell phone use rates in New York and Connecticut and rates by driver characteristics.

    Results: Overall use rates in Connecticut did not change. Overall use in New York declined from 2.3% pre-law to 1.1% shortly after (p<0.05). One year later, use was 2.1%, higher than immediately post-law (p<0.05) and not significantly different from pre-law. Initial declines in use followed by longer term increases were observed for males and females, drivers younger than 60, and car and van drivers; use patterns varied among the four communities. Publicity declined after the law’s implementation. No targeted enforcement efforts were evident. Cell phone citations issued during the first 15 months represented 2% of all traffic citations.

    Conclusions: Vigorous enforcement campaigns accompanied by publicity appear necessary to achieve longer term compliance with bans on drivers’ cell phone use.

  8. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    Or from the same researcher looking at DC, somewhat better effects
    Traffic Injury Prevention

    Volume 7, Issue 1, 2006

    Effects of Washington, D.C. Law on Drivers’ Hand-Held Cell Phone Use


    Anne T. McCartt, Laurie A. Hellinga & Lori L. Geary
    pages 1-5

    Objective. To assess the effects of Washington, D.C. law prohibiting drivers’ use of hand-held cell phones on such use.

    Methods. Daytime observations of drivers were conducted at signalized intersections in D.C. in March 2004, several months before the law took effect on July 1, 2004, and again in October 2004. As a comparison, observations also were conducted in areas of Virginia and Maryland located close to the D.C. border. Maryland and Virginia placed no limitations on drivers’ phone use. Use was observed for 36,091 vehicles in D.C., 25,151 vehicles in Maryland, and 28,483 vehicles in Virginia.

    Results. The rate of talking on hand-held cell phones among drivers in D.C. declined significantly from 6.1% before the law to 3.5% after. Phone use declined slightly in Maryland and increased significantly in Virginia so that, relative to the patterns of hand-held phone use in the two states, phone use in D.C. declined 50%. Hand-held phone use in D.C. declined comparably among drivers of vehicles registered in all three jurisdictions. D.C. police issued 2,556 citations and 1,232 warnings for cell phone violations during July-November 2004. There were spates of media coverage when the law was passed and when it took effect.

    Conclusions. D.C.’s law prohibiting drivers’ hand-held phone use had a strong effect on such use among drivers in D.C. Without ongoing publicized enforcement of the law, long-term compliance may be difficult to achieve.

  9. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    All of which is to say that laws without enforcement are of little use. The mechanism of enforcement widely chosen (police tickets) has some effect if implemented, but that leaves lots of cell phone use. More enforcement with the same consequences or more severe consequences if caught with the same enforcement should further reduce the quantity of crime.

    I believe “Cruel and Unusual” punishments are prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Whether this will stand (while capital punishment stands) is an interesting question, since given the choice, most people would prefer to lose their thumbs to their lives.

    1. UrbanDoofus

      Naturally. I would expect any law that isn’t enforced to be totally ineffective. At present, we few legal mechanisms for attacking this problem, however.

    2. Wayne

      If you pass an unenforceable law, what’s the point? If it can’t reasonably be enforced with the police we have (ugh, don’t get me started) then we need something more structural to prevent it. Like steering wheels that lock your hands to them while the car is operating. Or cell signal blockers in every car. I can’t think of anything that would realistically work or I’d be shouting from the rooftops, but the occasional ticket to every 100th or 1000th person who does something is not a deterrent.

  10. Matty LangMatty Lang

    The law we need is one requiring all cars and trucks to be equipped with technology that disables non-essential electronic devices while the vehicle is running. The challenge would be to have the tech disable devices within a certain radius of the drivers seat while allowing devices out of sight of the driver to remain active for passengers.

    I’m sure something could be figured out. #VoteMatty

  11. Erik b

    Wonder if Saudia Arabia does this?

    Wouldn’t a simplier and less medieval penalty be taking away their phone? Banned from cell phone contacts etc. Nobody really needs a cell phone. They get to keep their car. Oh and if they are caught with a burner from Walmart, jail time.

  12. GlowBoy

    Having just moved from Oregon, where handheld* use while driving has been illegal for several years (as it also has in neighboring Washington), I can say that abuse is still rampant there. You see people driving with phones in their hands all over the place. However, it is less rampant in OR/WA – a **lot** less rampant – than it is here in Minnesota. At least in the Northwest there’s some sense of furtiveness about it, and people have some awareness that they aren’t really supposed to be doing it. Like people going 70 in a 60 zone, they know they’re breaking the law and don’t do it as much.

    Here, a lot more people drive while yakking on the phone, and there’s no sense that there’s anything wrong with it. Revisiting the analogy to people driving 70 in a 60 zone, it’s as if Minnesota had no speed limit at all, with no awareness that driving that fast on an urban highway isn’t a good idea.

    * The bans in OR and WA apply to handheld devices only. I support a full ban on all cellphone use while driving, not just on handhelds. All the evidence indicates that handsfree devices are no safer than handhelds: it’s the act of carrying on a conversation with someone not in the car that is dangerous.

    I have a harder time supporting mandatory systems that prevent phones from being used while moving, possibly as a feature built into the phones themselves. As someone who often rides as a passenger in a car, bus or train, I’m opposed to being prevented from using my device when I’m *not* driving.

    1. Matty LangMatty Lang

      I agree and think there’s a way to allow passengers to use devices while preventing drivers from doing so. I don’t think being a train passenger is a concern though as train operators are already not allowed to use devices while driving at the cost of employment.

      1. Wayne

        Let’s be honest here, how many cars actually have anyone other then the driver in them? A train carries hundreds of people with one operator … a car usually has just the driver in it. No wonder they get so lonely and need to text.

  13. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

    1 weird thing I would recommend to everyone is not writing even a satirical post advocating physical violence like three days before sending a bunch of cold emails for a more serious article that requires research, whoops

  14. Ted Hathaway

    The toll roadway deaths and accidents take on the American economy is one of those “great unspoken” factors. More Americans have died on roadways since 1980 than in all the wars in the nation’s history. Sadly, texting is just one factor in the equation. There’s also excessive speed, chemical impairment (i.e., alcohol, drugs, etc.), fatigue, and other forms of distraction. Take your pick. In fact, auto-related deaths have not increased significantly since cell phone arrived. It’s another form of distraction Americans are happy to accept, just as they are happy to accept such astounding roadway fatality rates. Cutting off the thumbs of texters would have a negligible effect on total fatalities and accidents. It’s like the point Malcolm Gladwell recently made with respect to automobile recalls: People like to focus on very specific problems, ignoring the much larger situation. We devote a great deal of cost fixing one small part of the problem, blind to the scope of the problem as a whole. In this case, our streets, highways and freeways are ingenious pathways to death.

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