'How Stupid Is This Law?'

|

Michael Trujillo, former vice chairman of Santa Fe's Public Safety Committee, is having second thoughts about the city's ban on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. "In the beginning I pushed it pretty hard," he tells The New York Times. "But then I realized, 'God, how stupid is this law?'"

Not only is the ban–similar to rules in New York, New Jersey, and D.C.–hard to enforce, but it may actually contribute to driver distraction by creating the impression that hands-free phones are safe to use. Research indicates that it's focusing on the conversation, as opposed to holding the phone, that's the problem. And cell phone bans leave untouched myriad activities that can distract drivers and make accidents more likely, including use of various other electronic devices.

"Driver distraction has been an issue since the car has been around," notes a transportation policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "But now you have all these different technologies where legislators can't possibly write legislation for specific technologies. It's impossible to keep pace." Legislators probably will try anyway.

Advertisement

NEXT: Signs You're Not Martha Stewart

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Research indicates that it’s focusing on the conversation, as opposed to holding the phone, that’s the problem.

    I’m so sick of this cannard. Yes, distraction is a bigger factor, but don’t try to tell me you can drive just as well with one hand as two.

  2. what we need is legal/liability reform so that collision avoidance technologies can be implemented in vehicles and on the highways w/o crushing lawsuits preventing a market-wide rollout. that way you can drink, smoke (whatever), talk, chat, eat, give head, et al, to your hearts desire.

    w/o car accidents what will the ambulance chasers do? not much reason for law enforcement to pull people over either.

  3. I remember a trick question DMV testers would allegedly ask their candidates: If you were holding an ice cream cone while driving, which hand should you hold it in?

    A: Neither, of course. You should always have both hands on the wheel. If you answered any other way, you were probably going to fail — at least so says the rumor.

  4. Research indicates that it’s focusing on the conversation, as opposed to holding the phone, that’s the problem.

    I’m so sick of this cannard. Ever heard of passengers? When I’m driving I talk to them quite a bit.

  5. I’m with you, Warren. I was attempting to cross the street today in downtown, DC, and this lady whips around in an SUV holding a spoon. I think she was eating cereal.

  6. Purely anecdotal and a survey of one, but a good friend cracked his car up (no injuries to him, his passanger, or pedestrians) when he went off the road while searching his on-board navigation system for the closest, quality, Italian restaurant.

  7. Did he find it?

  8. Indulge me while I steer (yuk yuk) this thread to my favorite topic: traffic signals.
    Politicians alway propose simplistic solutions that make things worse, because they don’t trust complexity because they don’t understand it because they are too simple.

  9. Mr. Nice Guy, I think I’ve seen that same woman. Or, in any case, I’ve seen a woman in an SUV on several mornings at 20th & E who is clearly driving with her knees while she eats yogurt with both hands.

    Yesterday, when I was coming out of DC over the TR Bridge to get on 66W, there was a minivan driving about 5mph in 40mph traffic, trying to cross several lanes, blocking all sorts of drivers and generally creating a very dangerous situation. I managed to get around him, and if you guessed he was on the phone, you’ve read this blog before.

  10. Warren,

    In an automatic transmission with power steering, yes, I can drive as well with one hand as two. Although I am not sure that operating a car with automatic transmission and power steering counts as driving, but I don’t think this was the distinction you were trying to make.

    Jarod,

    I won’t vouch for the robustness of these studies, but many states are implementing graduated drivers licenses for kids which prohibit 16 year olds from driving w/ other kids as passengers on the grounds that data suggests these other passengers are a risk-inducing tax on the driver’s attention. I’ve never heard similar claims about adult driver’s, but if these studies are legit, I doubt that regulators are interested in telling adults that they can’t drive with adult passengers even if the safety effects are identical. Those HOV lanes need fillin’, after all.

    Mr. Nice Guy,

    It’s unclear from your anecdote whether her recklessness was caused by her one-handed driving or her being distracted by eating cereal.

    All that said, regulators are almost uniformly incompetent at knowing what they should be trying to accomplish with their legislation, or how to accomplish it. So I’ll second Jacob’s closing statement in saying that I’d just as soon these clowns sit on their thumbs and minimize their consumption of my resources.

  11. Ruthless,
    While I whole heartily agree with all your assertions, you haven’t linked them to traffic signals. Are you saying that, there are too many red lights because putting up a signal is the response to all traffic problems?

  12. Warren,
    I didn’t link, but traffic signals impede rather than expedite traffic through intersections.
    Roundabouts and all that…
    The only “signal” needed, ever, is a few Yield signs.

  13. TMTMTL,
    No Sale. Power steering and automatic transmission are helpful, but even with these features (I’ve never owned a car without them) it’s ludicrous to suggest you can control your car just as well with one hand as you can with two.

  14. The problem, IMHO, is that these cell phone laws are redundant, and single out a particular activity. It’s already against the law (at least in the state of Washington) to drive while distracted. As another poster pointed out, one can be dangerous behind the wheel while eating, handling screaming kids, shaving, applying makeup, jacking with the radio or other electronics, smoking, drinking coffee, etc. But there are also drivers out there that can handle these activities just fine. Not all at once, however.

  15. The obvious solution to this whole mess is staring us right in the face…make it illegal to drive with only one hand!

  16. Warren opines: “but don’t try to tell me you can drive just as well with one hand as two.”

    Color me impressed, Warren. I usually manage to, er, “drive” just fine with one hand, since I need the other to work the mouse. But if you need two, well, whatever floats your boat.

  17. I’m so sick of this cannard. Yes, distraction is a bigger factor, but don’t try to tell me you can drive just as well with one hand as two.

    Uh….I can. I’m tired of all these laws being made because some clumsy, ham-fisted individuals are too clutzy to multi-task…I happen to have great physical coordination. So the answer is to make more laws to make my life less manageable, just because a lot of other people can’t rub their tummy and pat their head at the same time??

    I’ve seen a woman in an SUV on several mornings at 20th & E who is clearly driving with her knees while she eats yogurt with both hands.

    Gosh, that must really get messy….what kind of freak eats yogurt with her hands?! Use a friggin’ spoon already…

    The obvious solution to this whole mess is staring us right in the face…make it illegal to drive with only one hand!

    …but then how am I going to be able to give other bad drivers the finger?

  18. Jarod / mythman:

    Conversation with passengers who are present is very different from using a phone. For one thing, most (adult) passengers are subconsciously sensitive to the driving environment as it develops, and will both decrease the congitive demands they put on the driver in a trickier situation, and use several mechanisms to redirect the driver’s attention to the road when necessary. By contrast, a participant in a phone conversation seems to project themself (in ways not fully understood) into the listener’s imagined environment, or some kind of remote conversation space. Whatever is going on is, I believe, very basic to the faculties underlying human language. In any case, I would be awfully surprised if the peer-reviewed academic studies of cell phone use failed to control for conversation in general, even for just linguistic input/ouput (e.g., talk radio on, or driver practicing a speech).

  19. Yes Warren, you can control your car just as well with one hand as two. Going around corners, etc. move other hand to wheel. Going down the street, no problem. I generally drive with one hand and I see lot’s more dangerous driving from people with both hands clenched at 10 and 2. It boils down to individuals and variation of skill and physical abilities again. Some people would be horrid drivers with 5 hands, many of us are very safe with one. Trying to legislate specifics doesn’t work – drive unsafely get a ticket, whatever the cause.
    -K

  20. smacky – any examples you can give us of your great physical coordination? 😉

    (Hey, RC Dean already jerked this thread down the wrong road.)

  21. smacky – any examples you can give us of your great physical coordination? 😉

    If I think of any, I’ll let you know….oh, I can tap dance and jump rope at the same time! Most of the others are probably not suitable for public consumption…

    I *just now* got RC Dean’s comment…I am so naive….

  22. “It’s unclear from your anecdote whether her recklessness was caused by her one-handed driving or her being distracted by eating cereal.”

    Yes.

  23. I love these friggin’ boards!

  24. I’ve always been envious of people who can steer with their knees. At 5’2, my legs are stretched out just to reach the pedals.

    I will drink a diet coke or talk on the phone while driving, but that’s it. I’m a pretty cautious driver and I only do those two things in light traffic at low speeds (i.e., not while trying to merge onto a Houston freeway). Texas tried to pass a no-cell-phone-while-driving law in 2003 but it didn’t get enough votes. They’ll probably try again this year but I predict it will fail again.

    What I can’t understand are women who put on their makeup while driving. You can put your eye out!

  25. What I can’t understand are women who put on their makeup while driving. You can put your eye out!

    …That’s nothing. Try driving and shooting a Red Rider BB Gun at the same time!

  26. WARREN SAYS, No Sale. Power steering and automatic transmission are helpful, but even with these features (I’ve never owned a car without them) it’s ludicrous to suggest you can control your car just as well with one hand as you can with two.

    No sale? What’s there to sell? It’s already been sold, bruthah. Every study that I’ve ever read shows that hands-free devices are NO SAFER than talking without one. It is, infact, as many studies have concluded, the focus on the conversation that is the danger. However, at the same time, when you have a passenger in the car who you’re talking to, it is not as distracting because there are two sets of eyes watching around you. This too has been proven by many studies.

    Your “hunches” or “guesses” are at complete odds with pretty much every study & survey in this area. How do you explain that?

  27. Something else that you guys might find interesting: various research studies, backed up by statistics around the country, have proven that driving while talking on a cell phone, with a handsfree device or without, is more dangerous than driving with a .08 BAC.

    Yet, every cop I see has a cellphone plastered to his ear—while, at the same time, he’d not hesitate to toss me into prison for doing something much less dangerous than that which he is doing. Fucking hypocrites.

  28. Sage said, “The problem, IMHO, is that these cell phone laws are redundant, and single out a particular activity. It’s already against the law (at least in the state of Washington) to drive while distracted. As another poster pointed out, one can be dangerous behind the wheel while eating, handling screaming kids, shaving, applying makeup, jacking with the radio or other electronics, smoking, drinking coffee, etc. But there are also drivers out there that can handle these activities just fine. Not all at once, however.”

    Such as it is with DUI laws. Take two examples:

    1) A guy is fumbling with his CD’s, eating a sandwich, talking on the phone, and driving at the same time. He’s swerving all over the road, not paying attention, putting everyone in grave danger. He gets pulled over by a cop.

    2) A guy has a 0.08 BAC, and is driving perfectly fine. He gets stopped by a random checkpoint.

    Now, #1 would, at the most, get a ticket and a small fine. However, #2 would be instantly arrested and imprisoned for 24 hours minimum, then be forced to take expensive driving & alchie classes, most likely have his/her license revoked, fined into the poor house, and basically have his/her life royally fucked up.

    If you look up injustice in the dictionary, it would most likely have this example.

    Motherfuckers.

  29. Now, #1 would, at the most, get a ticket and a small fine. However, #2 would be instantly arrested and imprisoned for 24 hours minimum, then be forced to take expensive driving & alchie classes, most likely have his/her license revoked, fined into the poor house, and basically have his/her life royally fucked up.

    If you live in Ohio, you get an extra-special punishment, too: a scarlet letter. (Special “I’m a Drunk Driver” license plates – I believe they’re yellow….)

  30. Wow, smacky. Good points, Evan W.

    prohibit 16 year olds from driving w/ other kids as passengers

    Assuming (as must be true sometimes) each of the other kids has a license and available car, I hope there’s a lot of parking where these kids are going. (Remember Swingers, where the guys, hoping to score, all drive to the party separately?)

    Are all of you one-handers (heh) signaling?

  31. Most of the others are probably not suitable for public consumption…

    That’s the whole point, sweetie.

  32. Driving with one hand as safe as two… hmm. I’ve never seen data but that is not what the suspension engineers I used to work with in the auto industry said.

    Technique aside, the question is the law. Adding more laws to an already un-enforced pile isn’t going to mitigate idiocy.

    My favorite local example is the downtown area near here. There are plenty of pedestrian accidents because drivers keep plowing through crosswalks. The answer? More expensive signage. In addition to the usual crosswalk lines and signs on the sides we have signs hanging above and flexible signs in the centerline. Some of these signs even have flashing lights.

    One day I cross. The cars approaching in 3 lanes slow and stop. When I am 3/4 across some moron in the fourth lane flies through almost hitting me even though she sees me and even makes eye contact!

    The best part is 2 cops sitting outside of the coffee shop see the whole thing and decide the appropriate course of action is to smile and tell me I should be more careful!

  33. The best part is 2 cops sitting outside of the coffee shop see the whole thing and decide the appropriate course of action is to smile and tell me I should be more careful!

    “coffee shop” is the Key Phrase in this sentence. Don’t fuck with a cop and his donuts and coffee. Nothing comes between them.

  34. There are plenty of pedestrian accidents because drivers keep plowing through crosswalks. The answer? More expensive signage. In addition to the usual crosswalk lines and signs on the sides we have signs hanging above and flexible signs in the centerline. Some of these signs even have flashing lights.

    This is the nature of the “program” (“program in the broad sense, as it pertains to beaurocratic attempts to fix problems): if something doesn’t work, just do more of it. If you’re trying to knock down a brick wall with a nerf bat, well, just hit it with a whole bunch of nerf bats.

    If a program is failing, just throw more money at it. This way, those who are running the program have more of an incentive to do poorly. Welcome to “the program”—AKA “the state”.

  35. As a youth I was using the rotating of my bicycle tire, while I was riding it, to scrape dog shit off it with my foot. I hit a parked car and broke off the front wheel assembly at the fork…
    so if it ain’t one distraction, it’s another.

  36. If you’re trying to knock down a brick wall with a nerf bat, well, just hit it with a whole bunch of nerf bats.

    ROTFL. What a great analogy.

  37. Remember the kid out west a couple months ago who killed some people when the SUV he was driving crashed while he was watching a movie on his in-dash DVD player? The jury let him off the big charges saying there wasn’t a specific law against watching movies in the car so they couldn’t nail him for manslaughter.

    I wish the cell phone ban were more strictly enforced here in NY but I know people pulled over for it. I’m all for it.

  38. On driving with one hand vs. two:

    90% of the time I drive with just one hand on the wheel, and I’m fine, but there must be times when I briefly and unconsciously use two, especially when turning at intersections. On those rare occasions when I’m holding a beverage (non-alcoholic) I definitely feel handicapped. Food, even more so. And peel-and-eat shrimp? Fugghedaboudit!

    On steering with one’s knees:

    I guy I used to know once told me this story: When he was a kid, the guy’s father liked to take him and his sister out for drives in the Michigan countryside.

    Part of the deal was that, once out on the country roads, the father would fake having a heart attack. Then he’d drive slumped in his seat, eyes mostly closed, and steering with his knees while his kids yelled, “Wake up, Daddy! Wake up, Daddy!”

    He did this multiple times. I’m sure he traumatized the hell out of his kids, but at least they grew up with a great story to tell.

    On in-car conversations vs. cell-phones:

    When talking with a passenger, I’m more likely to miss exits, etc., and occasionally brake a little later than I should. Especially if the passenger(s) are female; males tend to be less engaging and more comfortable with long silences.

    However, I find using a cell-phone in the car much more distracting. Partly it’s the one-handed thing. Partly it’s having to concentrate harder to hear the crummy connection. And partly it’s because either (a) I have to dig the cell-phone out of the pocket of my jeans when it goes off, which involves some wriggling around, or (b) the phone is plugged into the dashboard charger, and the cord doesn’t quite reach, so I have to drive with my head leaning way over to one side like the Pope’s.

  39. … slumped back in his seat …

  40. Probably too late to get any more discussion on this, but anyway…

    Without coming down one way or the other on the cell-phone ban (I’m undecided), why even have any traffic laws at all? Should I be able to drive the wrong way down the interstate as long as I don’t *actually* ram into someone or demonstrably cause an actual pile-up?

    It seems to me that the problem with the completely libertarian approach to traffic laws is that most people would concede that *some* amount of rules to try to *prevent* serious harm to innocents, rather than just punishing someone who actually causes such harm, is justified. Once you concede that, where then do you draw the line? Isn’t it unavoidable that any such line is at least *somewhat* arbitrary?

  41. And is “creating an impression” anything like “sending a message” ?

  42. Wouldn’t a general law about driving safely be more easily enforced than all these very specific laws? More easily abused too, I suppose.

    I spend a lot of time in my car (25000 – 30000 miles per year) and it is not uncommon for me to be cruising down the highway at 80 mph, in traffic, steering with my knee while I dial my cell phone (hands-free, except for the dialing part) in one hand while looking at the number on the palm pilot in my other hand.

    There is nothing like the adrenaline rush you get when you look up from this activity and see brake lights.

    Knock wood, I haven’t hit anything (yet).

  43. too many steves,
    Your tale reinforces my obsession with the misguidedness of traffic signals.
    Laws are like traffic signals. They are simplistic responses to complex situations. That’s why they never produce the simplistic results desired.
    Never!

  44. Ball:

    I agree with your general point. Of course we need to punish people who break easily definable and detectable traffic rules, in approximate proportion to the statistical risk they pose to others. And yes, the psychological and game-theoretical issues relevant to traffic law are complex. But the most important libertarian objection, I think, is to the fact that alcohol consumption per se is being punished with DUI laws. Although the nature of the offense may be rationalized in terms of the risk it poses, the combination of legal penalties and moral outrage against 0.08% drivers is completely out of proportion to the risk they pose relative to many other driver activities, as has been proven over and over again in controlled academic studies. Put another way: if I

    (1) look down on someone busted just over the limit, and feel that he deserves his punishment, and yet I

    (2) frequently talk on my cell and eat while driving, then I either

    a) think alcohol use per se is a moral offense worthy of legal punishment, or

    b) am really clueless about relative risk, or

    c) am a fucking hypocrite.

    Since I satisfy none of the three consequents, I mostly reject the two antecedents. I don’t ever have my cell on in the car, and rarely eat anything that puts demands on my dexterity. Also, I argue that DUI punishments are way too draconian.

    BTW, does anyone here know of statistics plotting BAC ranges against different kinds of DUI arrest (e.g. traffic stop, weaving, single-car accident, injury to others)?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.