Cell phone ban goes a little too far

Posted: Monday, February 22, 2010

The 2010 legislative session was one-third over last week, with legislators considering many possible laws. Among ideas being bandied about is a complete ban on the use of mobile telephones while driving.

Anchorage Reps. Mike Doogan and Bob Buch rolled out House Bill 257 last month. Drivers' mobile telephone use has been on people's minds since cellular technology intruded into the Americans' lives and the devices became ubiquitous. Cellular telephones vastly increase our ability to contact and be accessed by others all the time. With this benefit comes changed behaviors, necessitating new rules and societal norms.

We should be cognizant of the need to silence portable communications devices at the beginning of meetings and theatrical performances, and ought not to talk when it rudely intrudes upon those about us. But what is the intrinsic harm in talking in the privacy of our own cars?

Some states have banned the use of a hand-held telephone while driving but still allow the use of "hands-free" technology. Many places proscribe cellular use by newer, younger drivers, but not by adults.

In fact, there is another bill (House Bill 15) before the Alaska Legislature banning cellular use by minors, introduced last year. This bill made it through two committees before stalling in the House Finance Committee. Its failure to move may have helped spur the new, more draconian legislation. House Bill 257 would completely ban making a call on a cellular phone except in an emergency. No other jurisdiction in the nation has adopted such a law that makes no distinction between when and where a person would use a cellular.

On an isolated road, with no traffic, you would be breaking the law for placing a simple call, which seems a little extreme. Supporters of banning or restricting drivers' mobile usage cite studies that such activity distracts drivers and leads to accidents. This makes a little sense, but telephone usage can hardly be pointed to as more distracting than many other things that occur in cars every moment of every day. Loud music, adjusting a radio station, eating, talking to others in the car and applying makeup are probably every bit as distracting as the safe and prudent telephone use while driving.

Banning drivers' mobile telephone use unfairly targets one potentially hazardous activity while ignoring a host of others. Anyone who has ever followed a motorist pulling out of a drive-through restaurant window has seen the car ahead swerving, suggesting the application of sauce to a French fry. If we're going to ban all cellular use, we probably need to consider making it illegal to eat while driving, and perhaps even the sale of food to drivers.

While both cellular-ban bills would impose relatively light penalties of $300 and points leading to license suspension or revocation, they still would criminalize behavior that's not always dangerous, certainly in comparison to other behaviors that would remain completely legal and are highly likely to remain so.

I was just on O'ahu, Hawaii, where the municipal government has made it illegal to talk on the telephone while driving. It was the first time I'd spent much time operating a car in a place where it was illegal for me to use my mobile phone, and I didn't like it. I obeyed the law and didn't use the telephone while cruising down the road. When I was merging into fierce traffic on the H-1, I didn't feel constrained, but at other times, in a completely rural, bucolic setting, it made no sense for me not to be able to make a call.

Opponents of the ban on drivers' cell phone use cite statistics showing that less than ½ percent of accidents in a five-year period in Alaska implicated cell phone use, and a disproportionate share of those were caused by younger drivers. It's more reasonable to ban cell phone usage by younger drivers and not everyone on the road, but these motorists already face numerous restrictions on their ability to drive.

Still, a ban on use by younger drivers would create the opportunity to see if it yielded beneficial effects while policy-makers consider imposing similar restrictions on the full population of drivers.

There is a further matter in the debate on banning cell phone usage as to whether the law would allow for "primary offense" stops by law enforcement officers. Just as when seatbelt use was mandated by the Legislature, lawmakers have the option to legislate that one would have to be pulled over for another reason before being cited for being on the telephone. This distinction does not affect the larger policy choice about trying to make people safer by disallowing them from one discrete activity while leaving them free to engage in all sorts of other distractions.

I want to be as safe a driver as I can, and I want our roadways in Alaska to be as free as possible from collisions, injuries and other accident-related unpleasantness. But I also like to multitask and get things done as time permits. I believe that the best way to achieve my desired outcome is for me to be a safe, conscientious, alert motorist, which means exercising common sense when it comes to engaging in distracting activities while driving.

If we're going to try to increase driver safety, perhaps we ought to look at much more stringent screening when we issue driver's licenses, perhaps testing proprioception and kinesthetic-response ability. Maybe there needs to be an essay test or an interview to weed out drivers lacking the mental wherewithal to drive safely. Driving is a privilege, not a right, but that doesn't mean an arbitrary ban on one particular type of activity is going to make the world a better place.

I applaud the legislators who have attempted to advance the common good by increasing driver safety, but I respectfully suggest they need to find another means of accomplishing this end.

• Ben Brown lives in Juneau.

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