After years of saying he wouldn't, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is now calling for a new federal law to ban talking on cell phones while driving in any kind of vehicle on any kind of road anywhere in the country.
Speaking at a "distracted driving summit" in San Antonio, Texas Thursday, LaHood attacked what he called a "national epidemic," adding it was important for police to have "the opportunity to write tickets when people are foolishly thinking they can drive safely or use a cell phone and text and drive."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in 2011 there were 3,000 fatal accidents resulting from "distracted driving," which could be anything from talking on a cell phone to eating to putting on make up to screaming at the kids for making too much noise to fiddling with the GPS system in heavy traffic. By putting the blame on a single technology rather than on the bad choices made by individual drivers, where it belongs, LaHood is missing the mark.
The particular problem of "talking while driving" is already being addressed by the states--38 of which already have laws restricting the use of cell phones in cars--by the auto companies, and by the cellular telephone industry, which has made great strides in making cell phones safer for drivers to use while operating a motor vehicle.
The best way to address the problem, says the National Motorists Association is "through efforts to educate the public" on the dangers associated with not paying attention while driving. "Reinvesting public resources, that are now invested in 'speed kills' campaigns and related enforcement excesses, into education and public relations efforts focused on inattentive driving would be a far more productive use of these funds," the Association says on its website.
The group makes two other important points, both of which flow from the reasonable position that "preemptive laws that make otherwise innocent harmless acts illegal" are already too plentiful in the United States. First, that it is foolish if not dangerous to try and convince people that making talking while driving illegal "will eliminate the possibility that this act will lead to another, actually harmful act." And second, that the idea is popular in certain circles because a ban on cell phone use while driving is easier to enforce than laws intended to combat all forms of distracted driving, which "eliminates the need for exercising thoughtful discretion and reasoned judgment. The issue appears black and white. That the cell phone user was causing no harm and endangering no one does not have to enter the decision making process."
Others are also critical of what LaHood is trying to do.
"Treating cell phone use like drunk driving is particularly wrong-headed and assumes that cell-phone use and accessibility are casual novelties instead of the critical 21st century tool most Americans rely on. Unlike Washington, adults all across America understand the difference between responsible use of their cell phone and alcoholic misuse," said Horace Cooper, a legal commentator and adjunct fellow at the non-partisan National Center for Public Policy Research.
"Instead of solutions which are voluntary and rely on education and technology, LaHood seeks out the hysterical approach of banning cell phone use outright--this is a solution whose time hasn't come," Cooper said.
What LaHood is proposing extends the heavy hand of "big brother" even further into our lives. The fact that it is being pushed in the name of "safety" is no reason to accept it blindly.