Cell phones not sole cause of bad driving

By Tibor Machan: Syndicated Columnist

Richard Roy, a state representative of Connecticut, was quoted in the Oct. 1 New York Times as saying, “There’s nothing worse than seeing someone driving down the road, on the phone or shaving or putting on make-up, and there’s a child in the back seat.”

With this hyperbole he was defending the new law in Connecticut banning the use of cell phones while driving.

Actually, cell phone use while driving can be just as safe or unsafe as combing one’s hair, fiddling with a CD player, searching for keys in a pocket or purse, or doing innumerable other things that may distract a driver. To pick on cell phone use is unjustified.

This is not to say some people aren’t quite reckless as they drive and use their cell phones. But, that’s not unique to cell phone use, as already noted. Indeed, a good policy is to get away from drivers who talk to and look at their passengers. It’s scary — they could get so involved as to miss umpteen hazards. But is it sensible to ban this?

I do not dispute the authority of the managers — the government — to set rules for use of the roads. Clearly this is what underlies all these rules of the road, even when they are an overreach. Anyone who owns or manages a realm may establish rules within that realm — prohibit people from smoking in one’s home or restaurant or offices, require them to take their shoes off before coming in; you name it and ownership confers such a right. Other people, of course, have the right to stay clear of such realms when they disagree with such rules.

Unfortunately, when it comes to roads, there is no alternative to using the ones the state administers, so unlike in the case of homes and restaurants, there’s no choice. If you want to drive, you’ve got to deal with “the man.” That’s how it is, unless you find some private road system, and even then the government will probably have intruded.

So the issue of whether to ban handheld cell phones by drivers isn’t about who has the power to impose such a ban — clearly, in the way our society is managed, the government does. It seems, however, that whether a general ban ought to be imposed is difficult to know — some drivers may well use cell phones and while doing so drive even more safely; while using them, they may well be especially focused on their driving, whereas when they are not, they could be complacent.

This can apply to the use of any other implement. I, for example, often shave as I drive and increase my focus on the road as I do this. Shaving, of course, doesn’t run the risk of getting too involved with something that can take one’s mind off the road. Selecting a CD from one’s collection, however, can be much more distracting than using a cell phone.

When politicians and bureaucrats get involved in micromanaging how people ought to drive, they can easily become pointlessly intrusive. They can be like parents who meddle in everything their teen children do and thereby drive a serious wedge between them and the kids, even encourage rebelliousness instead of prudence.

This would likely be even worse with those who manage the roads. They are, after all, dealing mostly with adults who pretty much hold on to the notion that they, not some official, ought to decide how they ought to drive a car. Evasion of or resistance to rules can become routine, and this may work against the purpose a cell phone or similar ban is meant to serve.

It seems to me the answer is to focus not on what people do in their cars while driving but on the actual driving they do, which is what those who enforce the rules of the road can deal with most effectively. It shouldn’t be an issue whether one is using this or that implement that may for some but not for others serve to impede their driving. It should be an issue of whether the driving is competent, which is something quite independent of why it may or may not be.

In a free society it isn’t the state of mind of citizens that should be the concern of law enforcement, but primarily their actual conduct.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu