Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Memo to Lawmakers: Keep Your Nanny State Out of My Car. And Here's Why:

The Texas Legislature convened last week, and now Congress and the new President will begin working together--or not?--to solve various problems, real and imagined. One of the items that might be on the agenda either here in Texas or at the national level is the subject of my post today.

Ever since cell phones became almost universal in this country, some people have been trying to take them out of the hands of drivers. While most of the laws that have actually been passed are much more specific--banning their use by drivers in active school zones, or allowing them only to be used if a hands-free device is engaged--there are people trying to tighten things up in 2009. Here at home, a few Texas lawmakers are hoping to introduce bills to completely ban cell phone use by drivers, and the National Safety Council advocates a complete ban nationwide as well.

But the nanny-state implications of this notwithstanding (we'll discuss that in a minute), it seems like someone should stick up for the cell phone and its use while driving. (I should emphasize that, yes, this use should be done responsibly; adverse weather or traffic conditions may trump everything else on occasion.) But these lawmakers and the safety council are making it sound like no good can come from talking while driving, and that's far from the truth. A few examples:
  • People on long trips, especially those driving alone, can often use some "company" from time to time. Sure, other things--coffee, opening a window, listening to CDs or the radio--can help to an extent, but sometimes, there's no substitute for interaction with a real, live person on the other end. I've certainly benefited from this practice, and friends who take long hauls have often called me while en route for the same reason. (And yes, there are some who would say that the person should simply be taking a shorter trip, but that's not the way life works sometimes.)

  • And then there's the person who's driving around lost; it's much easier to phone a friend for directions if you're actually going somewhere, because you're much more likely to pass a landmark that someone else may recognize and can thus more easily assist you. And if you're in a questionable neighborhood, it might be downright dangerous to stop.

  • Cell phones have often been used to report crimes in progress. In certain instances, such as road-rage incidents, people would be far more likely to phone in a report if they could remain cloaked in the anonymity of their cars. Pulling off to the side of the highway might make one a target himself.

  • And it should be mentioned that highway shoulders are not particularly safe places to be in the first place. Here in Dallas, the section of LBJ Freeway between Stemmons and Central has proven to be particularly dangerous over the years, with crippling or fatal accidents happening to people changing tires, good Samaritans helping people with stalled cars, and even people sitting in cars. Enacting laws that would put even more people on the side of the road seems more dangerous, not less.
And it would be nice if more of the safety studies agreed with each other. A study cited a while back concluded that a driver talking on the phone as more dangerous than talking to a person in the passenger seat because the caller on the other end couldn't see the traffic conditions experienced by the driver, while the passenger might pause the conversation in such an instance. But in a defensive driving class I took a few weeks ago, we were told that the most recent studies have shown that talking on a cell phone while driving is actually less dangerous than talking to a person in the passenger seat, because in the latter case, the driver is likely to look at the person while talking to them.

And of course, there's the whole nanny-state aspect of this. Government has already gone way too far in its intrusion into our personal lives, and there's no reason for it to proceed even further in that direction. Sure, there are some people who can't operate a car safely while talking on a phone, but there are also those who can't do so while (pick one) eating, drinking, changing the radio station, changing clothes (!), putting on makeup, or reading the paper. Is the government going to try and outlaw those behaviors as well? Considering their actions in the past, I don't find it unreasonable to fear a slippery slope here.

I have no problem with requiring hands-free devices if it can be proven in several studies that it's better to have both hands on the wheel (but remind me to buy stock in the companies that make Bluetooth devices before such a law is enacted), The school-zone laws don't trouble me at all, nor would laws against texting while driving. And I don't even mind upping the punishment for causing an accident while using a cell if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that this behavior was the primary cause of the accident (that would allow people the freedom to assess the risk and use common sense, which also can't be legislated.) But completely outlawing their use while driving would throw out the good along with the bad.

Agree or disagree? Feel free to speak your piece in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Can you say "Animal Farm"? And years ago people just shook their heads and thought this was a just a comment on Communism and could NEVER happen here!!!!! Never say never, my friends! A change IS coming.... if we're not careful!

Kev said...

Believe it or not, I made it through all of high school and college without Animal Farm being on my assigned reading list. But I understand the general premise, and it sounds like I need to read that and also slog through Atlas Shrugged pretty soon, as they're being referenced in the sites I frequent on a regular basis.