Thursday, September 02, 2010

Enforcing respect for the law

The United States is a nation of laws:
badly written and randomly enforced.

-- Frank Zappa

Yesterday I complained about the hyperinflation of our statute books: We have too many laws -- and the laws we have are often too complex to be comprehensible. This diminishes respect for the law.

So, too, does uneven enforcement.

For example, a lot of you would probably agree that texting or even talking on the phone while driving is -- in general -- usually -- wrong. When one texts, looking at the itty-bitty keyboard instead of at the street ahead, horrible consequences may ensue. And who hasn't seen someone engaged in an extremely animated conversation while supposedly driving? How can such a person be paying adequate attention to the road? Answer: They can not.

The response to this consensus is that, in most states, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal.

But there are stipulations, provisos, exceptions, fine print....

For example, "hands-free" devices are typically permitted for cell phone use. How many times have you seen a driver, waving his or her arms and screaming at someone who's not there, drifting over the center line or into your lane -- but with something sticking out of his or her ear like Lt. Uhura? No violation of the cell phone ban there....

One may also be allowed, in some jurisdictions, to dial 911.

I believe there may be jurisdictions where members of some professions are exempt from the ban.

A lot of people have cell phones these days that have GPS apps. In Chicago, where I live, however, the dashboard-mounted Tom-Tom is permitted, but using one's hand-held iPhone, to get the same information, is a violation.

And, now, let's face the truth: Haven't all of you, at some point, read a text at a stop light or answered (or even made) a quick call while in transit? (Honey? It's me. Traffic is terrible -- I'll be about 15 minutes late. *beep*)

Is that really so terrible? But you could get a ticket while the guy in the next car, screaming at his ex-wife about never paying a single bleeping dime of child support if that kid gets a tattoo -- skates by.

And -- fine -- even if you are the one driver who locks your cell phone in your trunk before getting behind the wheel, have you ever gotten distracted by the kids arguing in the backseat? By a politician's commercial on the radio that sets your blood boiling? By your cigarettes (or breath mints) rolling out of your purse?

And even if you have never, ever been distracted from your driving in any way, won't you at least admit that the cell phone bans are unevenly enforced?

Walking downtown everyday I see lots of people in cars. Most of them -- not some of them, not just a lot them -- most of them are on the phone. Some have got thingamabobs on their ear -- but most of 'em don't. I've seen police officers driving and using cell phones. In my neighborhood there are fewer cars on the road -- but it sure seems like a high percentage are on a phone there, too. And most of these aren't using hands-free devices either.

It's harder, when one is driving, to observe just how many of one's fellow travelers are gabbing on the phone -- but it sure seems like an awful lot. And, if someone is going too slow or changing lanes randomly, it's a safe bet that he or she is doing something on a phone.

And yet we know very, very, very few of these persons will ever be ticketed for the offense. When persons do get tickets it's because cops are told to go out and write them in some specially selected enforcement area. So there's selective, random enforcement at best.

Uneven, uncertain, haphazard or selective enforcement undermines respect for the law -- even a law that most people would agree is probably a pretty good idea.

But I would submit that the laws banning cell phone use are not a pretty good idea. The real problem of using a cell phone in a vehicle isn't addressed by an outright ban.

The problem is not cell phones per se; the problem is distracted driving.

And it was ever thus: Back in the early 1970s, when Dick Nixon was still in the White House, when I got my driver's license, we were warned by our driver's ed instructors that it was an automatic fail if we turned on the radio during the driving test.

Distraction is the problem; a cell phone may be one of who-knows-how-many causes of distraction. We don't need separate laws against cell phones, against texting, against computer use, against too many kids in a car (in Illinois, as in some other states, the amount of passengers a driver may legally transport is dependent on the age of the driver and the kinship of his or her passengers)... we need just one law. Distracted driving should be illegal. Distracted driving should be determined by the arresting officer. ("I saw the defendant change lanes erratically, and he appeared to have his head down. As I approached I could see he appeared to be typing. After I stopped him I saw a Blackberry on the seat beside him.") Such a law can be enforced wherever a cop sees the hazard -- and without jeopardizing the license of a soccer mom calling Junior for 30 seconds to say that Sis's game ran late and he should warm up the meatloaf for dinner.

Erratic drivers -- distracted drivers -- are the menace. These are the ones who should get tickets -- even if they have Bluetooth. Or if they were just putting on makeup -- even if their cell phone was locked in the trunk.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Was Uhura listening to music at the same time?

sari said...

Nobody needs to be actually texting while they drive. Pull over, for the love of Pete.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i swear everyone i see driving is on the phone here.

smiles, bee