Thursday, December 15, 2011

Don't Ban Logic in Cell Phone Debate

So, you say letting other people driving while using cell phones is dangerous.

But you don't want the government banning you from doing the same thing.

Granted, the chances of banning drivers from cell phone use aren't very good.  It would take an extraordinarily gutsy politician to carry that banner in his or her state, and politicians don't like to be gutsy.

In the meantime, however, reaction to the news that the National Transportation Safety Board recommends a ban on cell phone use in the drivers' seat has brought a ton of anti-government ravers out of the woodwork, all squawking about how the Nanny State Police will soon smother the United States with silly laws.

And while I agree that we shouldn't need a law banning stupid behavior - like using cell phones while driving - plenty of Americans (myself included) have already proven that we're more than willing to risk this extraordinarily dangerous behavior simply because we can.

The only penalty we receive comes if we damage our vehicle - or ourselves - in an accident.

Precedents and Enforcement

But is banning cell phone use, even though it sounds like a draconian measure, entirely un-American?

Consider the rules imposed by the Federal Communications Commission against certain swear words and sexually-suggestive terminology on the nation's airwaves.  Rules that, were they abolished, would elicit howls of protest from many of the same people protesting the proposed ban on cell phone use.

And cuss words don't kill anybody.

To a degree, roadways are like airwaves, are they not?  They're both a form of public domain, shared by society, and intended for our overall protection, productivity, and enjoyment.  Yet just as we recognize the need to police the airwaves for the good of our entire society - particularly to protect children who do not need exposure to such content at such vulnerable ages - don't we also need to protect drivers and their passengers on our roadways?

Granted, one of the strongest arguments against outlawing cell phones is the question of enforcement.  For government to create a Nanny State law is one thing, but for it to create an unenforceable Nanny State law is rubbing salt into the wound.

Unfortunately, the only realistic way to force drivers to hang up and drive is to tie penalties to such a driver who gets involved in an automobile accident.  Their cell phone records would have to be researched by the police.  However, that doesn't sound like a terribly efficient process.  Neither am I sure whether a search warrant would need to be issued, or how much liability might be linked to the trail of cell phone activity.

Indeed, Canada and some US jurisdictions already ban most forms of cell phone use, and some experts claim that crash rates have not declined in those areas.  They try to draw the conclusion that laws banning cell phone use don't work. Yet might this apparent proof actually reflect a woefully ineffective enforcement of those laws?  In other words, the reason current laws don't seem to be reducing the number of accidents may have less to do with these laws being misguided and more to do with these laws incorporating unreliable enforcement methods.

The same number of people may be driving and using their cell phones, even with new laws against such behavior, knowing they won't get caught or penalized.  If and when they do get in a wreck, maybe they just don't tell law enforcement. After all, who's gonna know, if the police don't subpoena their data records?

Isn't the enforceability issue a red herring anyway?  Wouldn't a well-written cell phone ban be about as effective as laws against driving without car insurance?  Haven't most of us resigned ourselves to the fact that only a law will force some people to maintain proper car insurance?  But people driving without insurance don't get caught unless they get stopped for some other infraction, or they're involved in an accident.  So in a sense, laws already requiring insurance are about as "unenforceable" as a cell phone law would be.

The point is that people can throw opinions on the wall of objections all day long, hoping enough will stick to create a plausible scenario of justification as to why banning cell phones is a bad idea.

Is it the Nanny State's Fault that We Need One?

But it really isn't, is it?  It's unpopular, it's inconvenient, it's government-creep... but we Americans have a bad habit of taking liberties and taking them for granted, and in the process, abusing them.  It's like children whose parents give them an inch an they take a mile, only to recoil in distress when the parents realize that their kids can't handle the responsibility.

Ultimately, working through the logistics of banning cell phone use won't be an exercise in futility - even if broader bans on the practice never materialize - as long as Americans realize that driving while on the phone truly is a dangerous distraction, and we collectively make concerted efforts at curbing our own dangerous behavior.

As for making yet another law, just know that the distance between being accountable for your actions and being protected from people who don't sometimes requires a law prescribing just how much unaccountable behavior society can withstand.

And the longer it takes a society to figure out what that amount is, more lives generally end up being at stake.

I hope we can live with that.

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