Opinion

The Absurdity And Futility Of ‘Distracted Driving’ Laws

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Posted: Jul 01, 2019 12:01 AM
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not represent the views of Townhall.com.
The Absurdity And Futility Of ‘Distracted Driving’ Laws

Source: Morgan J Segal Photography/Mazda North American Operations via AP

Today, Tennessee becomes the 19th state to make de facto criminals out of a significant percentage of its citizens by passing a law that makes it illegal for anyone to touch a cell phone while driving. The law, passed by assumedly well-meaning legislators as an attempt to cut down on deaths from “distracted driving,” nevertheless represents yet another governmental attempt to crush a fly with a sledgehammer, and it’s a trend that isn’t about to end anytime soon.

Sadly, this merely represents the next step for do-gooder social engineers who think laws on the books can somehow fix all of society’s ills. First, they banned texting while driving, then holding a phone up to one’s ear. When those laws proved ineffective (because there will always be bad apples who do stupid things in vehicles), they simply went to the next step on the nanny state slippery slope.

Except, while talking with a phone to one’s ear and texting are relatively easy for police to observe, prove, and enforce, and are generally activities that a vast majority of people agree shouldn’t be done while driving, this latest round of bans are problematic for a variety of reasons, including privacy, subjectivity on the part of police who can now stop someone for merely ‘looking down’ or basically anything they consider a ‘distraction,’ and the fact that they just turned the majority of citizens into law-breakers. 

Don’t believe me? Tell me, if you live in Tennessee or another state that bans “touching” your cell phone, are YOU going to comply with this law? Every time? Really? 

Let’s go over two of countless scenarios:

You’re on the interstate and your exit is about to come up. Suddenly, your phone glitches, shuts down the maps program, and you don’t know what exit to get off on. You’re on a straight road with little traffic. Do you put your code in and restart the program - an action that involves ‘touching’ your phone more than the allowable one swipe but something you probably can do without even looking down - or do you get off at the next exit, pull into a gas station, and do it then?

Again, you’re on an interstate with little traffic. It’s a long trip and the podcast that was so great at keeping you alert ends. It’ll just take a couple of swipes and your code to move to the next one. Do you stop, or do you assess traffic and quickly glance down to do something you’ve been doing for years with zero issues? 

These things and more are actions that involve little more than the currently-legal changing the radio station or adjusting the heat & air, yet because they involve your cell phone they are now illegal. Sure, the “correct” answer to these scenarios is always going to be “pull over,” as plenty of virtue-signallers will doubtless cite in the comments below, but in all reality, will most people really do that? 

This law, like so many others, presumes citizens aren’t adults with adult judgement. Most of us can determine when it’s safe to glance down to do anything quickly in a vehicle and when it’s not. I’ve been switching podcasts on my phone for years, and have never once been cited for reckless driving because I’m extremely careful, you know, like an adult. People will say “a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch,” but why not simply punish those bad apples? If someone is doing ANYTHING in a vehicle that causes them to not operate it safely, they should be cited. And the result will be something police can easily observe and deal with - an erratic vehicle. 

It’s one thing when a law makes sense, but when a law treats ordinarily law-abiding citizens like juveniles, don’t be surprised when people ignore it. Especially when we’re not even sure such laws even “save lives” in the first place. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety researchers say the overall effect these laws have on crash totals varies “widely” and “despite the proliferation of laws limiting drivers’ cellphone use, it is unclear whether they are having the desired effects on safety,” The Washington Post reported. Yet, of traffic deaths from 2014 - 2017, “only a fraction” were allegedly caused by people manipulating their phones by hand. And I’m guessing most of those were probably the aforementioned bad apples no law would stop anyway. 

So far, hands-free usage of devices are still legal, but make no mistake, it’s only a matter of time before they try to take that away too. Why? Because since the current law won’t do a thing to reduce traffic fatalities, and since lawmakers are always looking for a “crisis” to “solve,” they’ll simply move to the next step. Think I’m exaggerating? Florida’s legislature was contemplating verbiage that would have arguably made it illegal to take a sip of coffee while behind the wheel. New Jersey’s law is horribly subjective, making it illegal to “engage in any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle on a public road or highway.”

Under such laws, anyone could theoretically be pulled over for anything an observing officer considers a distraction, as this Minnesota woman pulled over for, you guessed it, drinking coffee while driving found out.  

“Inattentive driving relates to anything that takes your attention away from those obligations of every driver, which is to pay attention,” a St. Paul cop told media.

So in other words, it’s a slippery slope:

“Drivers who change a radio station, talk to kids in the back seat or take a sip of soda all have something in common: Their attention is being taken off the road,” AAA Oklahoma wrote. “Distracted driving is any activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the task of driving and includes texting; using a cell phone; eating and drinking; talking to passengers; grooming; reading; using a navigation system; adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player.”

Researchers quoted by The Washington Post included “shaving, flossing, nose picking, hair brushing or habitual hair twirling; newspaper and book reading; and singing, eating and cigarette lighting” as behaviors that “should be addressed.” 

And you can bet your bottom dollar that government will “address” them all right, ad infinitum, and make lots of moolah for state and local governments in the process. You see, despite their repeated insistence otherwise, these laws aren’t really on the books to “save lives.” They are on the books to give cops an excuse to pull anyone over they choose, for virtually any reason whatsoever, and keep those tickets coming. 

Yet, interestingly, police are exempted from Tennessee’s new law, even though a police officer driving distracted can cause an accident that’s just as dangerous or even fatal as one an ordinary citizen can cause. And they do, as these hundreds of police distracted-related crashes in Denver alone attest.

Is distracted driving a problem? Yes, for some people. Some people can walk and chew gum at the same time and some people can barely do one task effectively. Reasonable, responsible adults know when they have to keep their eyes peeled to the road and when they can take a second to reach for their water mug or quickly change their iTunes playlist. 

Lawmakers can keep going down this slope and “ban” every single “distraction,” from drinking water to changing the radio station to talking with the person sitting next to you, but instead of saving lives they’ll simply continue to make criminals out of everyone and give unlimited stopping power to police. They’ll also probably cause a whole other major problem for those who actually choose to follow their absurd laws - people falling asleep!