Wheeled, Wired, and Free

Posted: May 29, 2001 12:00 AM
Bad laws are like viruses. If one city or state passes a stupid, heavy-handed law, the whole country gets the bug. Take New York's new bill that would ban driving while talking on a cell phone, unless the cell phone is hands free or the call is an emergency call to authorities. GOP Gov. George Pataki said he'll sign the bill, passed overwhelming by the state legislature. His spokesman, Michael McKeon, explained, "It's a commonsense piece of legislation that's going to make our roads safer." Try instead: a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 87 percent of New Yorkers liked the idea. And so, another dumb law is born. Watch the other 41 states considering similar laws rush to pass their own pandering measures. Common sense? That would dictate that lawmakers concerned about car accidents caused by distracted drivers would pass a law to ban those behaviors that cause the most accidents. The American Automobile Association -- which urges drivers to pull over to make cell phone calls -- studied crashes involving 32,303 cars between 1995 and 1999. The study found that drivers were most likely distracted by things happening outside the car (29.4 percent). The second most frequent distraction was adjusting a car radio, cassette or CD player (11.4 percent), followed by distraction by another occupant (10.9 percent), a "moving object" in the car (4.3 percent), adjusting other car controls (2.8 percent), eating or drinking (1.7 percent), using or dialing a cell phone (1.5 percent) and smoking (less than 1 percent). Which means that if New York pols put common sense first, they'd outlaw radios in cars first. "You should ask these people: What if they said to you that you can't drink a cup of coffee in a car?" AT&T Wireless spokesman Steve Crosby argued. Or you could only drink through a cup-holder and a long straw. "You can't legislate everything," was McKeon's answer. Really? Looks like New York is taking a stab at it. Common sense also would dictate that New Yorkers would want a law based on research. But as AAA's Atle Erlingsson noted, "The current research says it's not the device that's the problem, it's the conversation that's the problem." A different study found that drivers were as distracted when talking on hands-free phones as handheld phones. Common sense? That should tell you what Crosby noted: "Some people can multitask, some people cannot." Common sense? Try: Just because some soccer mom in a sport utility vehicle drives poorly while using her cell phone, that doesn't mean that a state should outlaw cell phone use by commuters stuck in gridlock on bridges and toll plazas. Alas, it seems Americans are so dismissive of liberty and personal responsibility that many are ready to outlaw activities because they find some practitioners distasteful. Including themselves. You just know that some of those 87 percent of New Yorkers dial and drive. They could just stop doing it. But noooo. In their weasel hearts, they're shouting: "Stop me before I drive with my cell. Make me do what I will not do on my own." It's pathetic. It's especially pathetic that people feel virtuous supporting a stupid bill that doesn't even go after the major causes of distraction accidents. Virtue, these days, means supporting even stupid laws because it shows how well-intended you are. If you support something that might save one life -- or might not -- then you are entitled to pass laws that deprive people of their freedom. The cell-phone people think pols wouldn't dare, say, outlaw switching the radio while driving. They're only picking on cell phones because cells have become a symbol of a kind of affluent arrogance. But once it gets into voters' heads that other people abuse their radios, it could be adios to AM and FM.