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Will the “Ten Commandments of Driving” Create a “Benedict Effect”?

When I saw the first headlines, I thought it was some kind of a prank, but it’s not: the Vatican has issued a document concerning “the pastoral care of road users,” which includes a sober discussion of “the phenomenon of human mobility.”

It also contains a section called “Drivers’ ‘Ten Commandments,'” which has been the focus of tons of news coverage in the past 24 hours. The first commandment is “You shall not kill.” The second commandment is: “The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.” The document also encouraged drivers to pray: “During a journey it is also beneficial to pray vocally, especially taking turns with our fellow travellers in reciting the prayers, as when reciting the Rosary which, due to its rhythm and gentle repetition, does not distract the driver’s attention.”

Let’s set aside the question of whether reciting the Rosary indeed “does not distract the driver’s attention.” When I read this bit about prayer and auto safety, I immediately thought of the Peltzman Effect, named after the economist Sam Peltzman, which posits that safety regulations may make people behave more recklessly because they are protected.

The most famous Peltzman example argues that drivers who wear seat belts will drive more recklessly than if they were unbelted. (My favorite version of this theory is what I call the Lipitor Effect: if your daily diet includes 20 mg of the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor, it can also include a pastrami sandwich.)

And so I wonder, will Pope Benedict and the Vatican create a similar effect by encouraging people to pray while they are driving? Will people who pray feel so well-protected that they drive less carefully? The hidden side of the Peltzman Effect is that, while belted drivers are far less likely to get hurt themselves in an accident, if they start driving more recklessly they are more likely to hurt pedestrians and others. Will the Benedict Effect, as well-intentioned as it is, produce a similar downside?