Reason Writers Around Town: Radley Balko Debates Rep. Carolyn McCarthy on a Federal Texting-While-Driving Ban


In a point/counterpoint for US News & World Report, Reason Senior Editor Radley Balko debates Rep. Carolyn McCarthy over the wisdom of a federal ban on texting while driving.

Balko argues it isn't clear that texting behind the wheel is a national epidemic, and that, in any case, a ban would fail to address other driver distractions, give police another reason to make pretext stops, and be impossible to enforce.

Read Balko's piece here. Rep. McCarthy's counterpoint is here.

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  1. Is texting while driving a commerce clause issue?

    1. Who cares? It's a pain in the ass. Ever get stuck at a light behind some asshole who's texting? Light turns green, but they don't notice. People eating a burger while driving don't pull that shit.

    2. No, they'll attach is as a condition to highway funding, like they did with the 21 drinking age and speed limits.

      1. No they won't even bother to attach it to some highway bill. They'll say texting uses interstate companies, interstate airwaves, wires, satellites, etc., and many of the texts may even be between people in two different states. People pay to text (whether per text or by buying a package of x texts per month), so it's commerce, and for the dubious reasons stated before, it's interstate. Or, they can say causing traffic accidents affects insurance companies and the automobile industry, so even an intrastate fenderbender is "interstate commerce" (see the horrible Raich v. Gonzales).

  2. Light turns green, but they don't notice.

    They invariably notice the after-market airhorn installed in my vehicle.

    Would anyone care to even make an argument that this falls within the commerce clause?

    1. It's a service from your phone company?

      If the commerce clause can cover pot grown by the people of California for the people of California, the telecom issue shouldn't be a stretch for SCOTUS.

      Congress will avoid the constitutional issue by blackmailing the states with threats of withholding highway funds. It's not mandatory, but if you want your money...

  3. I believe that this falls under the unwritten "FEDGOV can do whatever the fuck it wants" clause.


  4. I was pretty damn good at texting while driving tractor-trailer across the country.

    1. I doubt you were as good at it as you thought you were.

  5. We should be allowed to play Scrabble while driving and eating chicken wings, at whatever speed we please, on private toll roads, drunk.

    1. ....while getting road head.

      Seriously, where the fuck are your priorities?

      1. That goes without saying.

    2. They always go straight to roads.

    3. Every once in a while I get an urge to pop off a few rounds. I hope they don't outlaw loading magazines while driving. That would really suck ass - I'd have to plan ahead and load them at home.

  6. This would not fall under the commerce clause but under the ability of the federal government to attach conditions to funds. Same thing with the 21 drinking age and many others.

  7. As a mother, nurse for over 30 years, and member of Congress, I believe that the ALERT Drivers Act can and will deter roadway accidents and fatalities for novice and experienced drivers alike.

    Fuck a bunch of numbers and discussion about federalizing phone conversations in traffic (will cabbies still be able to talk to dispatchers?),
    SHE'S A MOMMY!!!
    AND A NURSE!!!


    1. As a father, a programmer, and an American citizen for almost 40 years, I can safely say that this moron has no grasp on statistics so she has to resort to appeals to emotion and to false authority. No wonder she's in Congress!

    2. Yeah, Bradley lost that debate. He can get back to us when he's a mother, former nurse, and a Congresswoman. Till then, he ain't shit.

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  9. I'd hope this law would be used to put an added punishment in effect for drivers involved in an accident who were found to be texting at the time. I doubt that even that would work properly.

    1. Uh, why? Is the car any less totaled when a non-texting driver hits it?

      1. You can easily make the case that texting, or doing anything that substantially removes your attention from the road for more than half a second, while actually driving is negligent.

        Big difference than getting hit on an icy road.

    2. Hey I know, how about pillorying your city or county councilmember. Or maybe your state legislature for this. What on gods green earth gives the federal government authority or business in this area?

      Yeah, I'm one of those 'tenthers'.

  10. I took a shit while driving once.

  11. The kids call it "shitting".

  12. reason to make pretext stops, and be impossible to enforce.

    That would be "posttext" stops.

    I'm here all week.

  13. If Rep. McCarthy thinks it's bad that i'm texting with one hand while driving, wait until she sees what i'm doing with the OTHER hand.

  14. Not surprisingly, a recent CBS News/New York Times poll concluded that 90 percent of adults believe texting while driving should be illegal.

    If 90% of adults want texting while driving to be illegal, then presumably 90% of adults don't do it in the first place. So why do we need a law to cover something no one does?

    1. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssnap! They don't call you CaptainSmartass for nuthin'

    2. Apparently we need it for assholes like this, who think it's a hazard but do it anyway:

      "I text while driving all the time," said Rob Getzschman in The Christian Science Monitor, and "done right, it's a thing of natural beauty, a ballet of manual and technical dexterity." But I value my life, so I'd welcome a legal ban and a crackdown by the cops. Addicts like me need a strong legal incentive "to do the right thing: Drive now, text later."

      (Quoted from The Week, 7 Aug 2009)

      1. Addicts like me need a strong legal incentive

        Death penalty for your first offense mother-fucker!

      2. While I have no truck for texting while driving, but an attitude like that is an enemy of liberty. Getzschman says he cannot exercise his judgment, common sense, and responsibility without a legal threat. Can we just revoke his license and citizenship on principle?

  15. Uh, why? Is the car any less totaled when a non-texting driver hits it?

    There's a difference between having an accident, and having an accident because you were driving recklessly. I think texting, drinking, etc. can legitimately be penalty enhancers.

  16. All the world's a phonebooth, and all the men and women merely callers and texters.

  17. Not surprisingly, a recent CBS News/New York Times poll concluded that 90 percent of adults believe texting while driving should be illegal.

    There already is. It's called reckless driving and/or failure to control a motor vehicle.

    Aw fuckit. Democracy as Jenga: If we just add *one more frivolous law* then it'll be perfect.

    1. "Democracy as Jenga: If we just add *one more frivolous law* then it'll be perfect."

      That about sums it up.

  18. By the way, for those of you who like to give your middle finger to the man, I carry two cell phones. IN Washington, it's illegal to talk on the cell phone while driving... as a secondary offense.

    I talk on my cell phone while I drive. But if it ever came into question, I would toss my personal cell phone between the seats, and if questioned, hand the work cell phone to the officer. He can look at the call history and he'd see nothing on it relating to the time he pulled me over.

    That now puts the officer in a difficult position. Is he going to search my vehicle for another cell phone? How would the law prove that I was on the phone when all they know about is the cell phone I had on my person at the time.

    1. What a clever way to be completely irresponsible!

      Go to hell.

  19. But when is she going to do something about drivers with barrel shrouds?

    1. +1 Good one, beat me to it. I guess when the put those barrel thingys on cell phones.

    2. Beat me to it, as well. I was going to ask about phones that have a "shoulder thing that goes up".

  20. What about the pigs and their fickin laptops?

  21. There's a difference between having an accident, and having an accident because you were driving recklessly. I think texting, drinking, etc. can legitimately be penalty enhancers.


    Aren't you Mr. Civil Restitution? Why make accidents a crime when they don't need to be?

    1. There are no such things as "accidents" in the context RC describes: they are merely poor choices. "Penalty enhancers" = mitigating factors.

      In science, you could think of them as catalysts, e.g. presence of the mitigating factor increases the likelihood of an MVC with either another vehicle, object or living thing.

      1. mitigating precipitating.

        Adjective fail. Long week.

  22. So a 30 year old driving on the interstate, having gotten plenty of sleep, at midnight is automatically going to crash?

    Get rid of the "distracted" rules and punish people who cause accidents instead.

  23. Aren't you Mr. Civil Restitution?

    I'm Mr. Civil Restitution. For (legitimately) criminal offenses, I gots no problem with punishment.

    Why make accidents a crime when they don't need to be?

    An accident that just happens shouldn't be a crime.

    An accident that happens because you willfully endanger other people is bad, should be a crime, and should be punished.

    Example: I'm driving along in a residential neighborhood at the speed limit, hit some oil on the road, and run over a kid. No crime.

    I'm driving along in a residential neighborhood, drunk off my ass, texting, going 100 mph, and run over a kid. Crime.

  24. Insert html tags where appropriate.

  25. Another fucking federal boondoggle. This law isn't going to discourage anyone from texting while driving. People will still do it, and it will be impossible to prove if someone was texting at the time of an accident.

    In fact, I think this will make things more dangerous. Instead of being able to hold their phone above the steering wheel to use their peripheral vision to watch the road, texters will put their phone lower in their vehicle to text covertly which will divert their attention fully, instead of partially, from the road.

    1. Compare the time of crash of the car's black box with your phone records. That's easy in the 21st century. Maybe time stamp on a video, maybe not.

      But it's certainly possible.

      1. I imagine that that is possible only if you actually sent a text message immediately before/during an accident. And most cars on the road do not have such "black boxes". And how closely would that be synchronized to the phone time? Provided there is no "black box", how do you establish the time of the accident (to correspond with the phone log)?

  26. Anyway, this debate ignores the real commuting menace. Women putting on their FUCKING makeup while driving. When can we expect the law for that, Carolyn?

  27. My employer prohibits employees from:

    1. Using a cell phone without an earpiece while driving on company business
    2. Using a company cell phone without an earpiece when on personal time.

    Employees can be disciplined up to and including termination for an infraction. This is clearly a CYA for insurance purposes. I think the company has the right to make these rules for use of its own equipment, or on company time.

    Why would we treat the Federal government differently when considering policies for Federal employees?

    Private citizens are a different story.

  28. Please note that I'm not commenting on whether the policy has any effect on the accident rate nor whether talking/texting really makes a difference in this context, only that private employers can make this kind of policy as they please; why not public employers?

  29. Pretty easy to check if you were texting before an accident, check the phone log.

    Also, yes, if you are texting and cause an accident you are behaving recklessly, just as much as drinking and driving etc.

    Thus, that makes an "accident" more like carelessness while driving, and a possible crime.

    Oh, and agreed on the makeup thing.

    Basically you shouldn't be doing anything super distracting while driving. For example crossword puzzles, or reading a book (it happens).

    Should we need a law for each offense, IMO no. But then again, it seems if you don't spell it out real plain and simple you get bullshit cases like the sexting.

    No real good solution, since people can't seem to exerecise a bit of common sense.


    Is that too much to ask?

    1. Too distracting.

  31. I agree that we Americans are terribly undisciplined when it comes to driving, but the proliferation of micromanaging laws that duplicate the already overbroad "failure to pay time and attention to driving" laws are rife with the potential for unintended consequences.

    I'm an amateur radio operator, which is a hobby, but one which often provides volunteers to support public safety services during emergencies and failures of public safety infrastructure. For example, when police departments' radio systems fail, they often turn to hams for support.

    We've already had to contend with local laws that fly in the face of the Communications Act (which wasn't bad in terms of common sense despite being written in 1933 - or maybe because of that). For example the Communications Act said - radio is everywhere, if you happen to intercept a conversation, don't disclose the content for personal gain, as that's essentially eavesdropping. Now we have localities and states banning various types of radio receivers in vehicles despite the fact that police transmissions are unencrypted and that criminals don't care about laws that ban guns, much less scanners.

    Now it's "text communications with electronic devices." These laws are all over the map in terns of vagueness and weird exceptions and written in ways that are guaranteed to create regulatory uncertainty for automobile and consumer electronics manufacturers and people doing things that have nothing to do with mobile phones.

    I'm waiting for the first case where some police officer has an accident and his mobile data terminal use records are subpoenaed and violate one of these texting bans. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

    I picked up a car in Germany once, and after a week of driving on German and French highways, I was miserable when on the road back in the U.S. I admit it, I use my cupholder - which by the way is apparently a sine qua non for marketable cars here, but I tend to agree with the Germans that they're not a great (or particularly useful) idea if one is a dedicated and skilled driver.

    The comment about the criminalization of accidents is a good one. Somewhere there is a balance.

    if we as a nation were really serious about traffic safety, as opposed to revenue generation or controlling people, every driver would be subject to rules on adequate rest/sleep and a regime more like that to which we aircraft pilots adhere, including real physical exams.

    I would find that onerous and oppressive but it would do more to cut down on accidents than this other drivel.

  32. When are we going to ban billboards?

  33. Sorry, can't write a more thoughtful comment right now - I'm driving.

  34. Perhaps we need to amend the Constitution to require that senators and reprehensatives pass an exam on the Constitution.

  35. I've said this before, and intend to repeat it in every discussion of this issue that comes up:

    We should not be talking about banning calling or texting on the roads, we should be talking about banning DRIVING.

    Map databases, locator systems, collision detection, and computer technology have all long since reached the point that it should be trivially easy to design a ROBOT-DRIVEN car which can navigate anywhere the roads will take you, with even greater safety than you would ever get from a fully-attentive human driver.

    We should be able to get into our cars, enter our preferred destination, then sit back and chat on the phone, catch up with work, play video games, nap, whatever.

    My guess is that the only thing stopping car companies from doing this is that getting permission from state and federal governments for driver-less cars to be on the roads is rather dicey... That, and the liability issue. When a driver mows down a 9-year old girl chasing a ball into traffic, it comes out of their insurance, regardless of whether they were at fault. If a robot-car did it, we all know it would be the manufacturer's lawsuit and PR nightmare, regardless of whether it was reasonable to expect the car to avoid the child.

    But still, these things could be hammered out, if somebody with sufficient vision and investment power were to step up and make it happen.

    1. You underestimate the difficulty of designing an autonomous autopilot and autonavigator for ground transportation.

      You can google "DARPA Grand Challenge" to get some idea of the state of the art of autonomous robotic driving. You'll discover that it's not quite ready for prime time.

      There is significant effort being applied to this problem, though. Someday it will be possible, probably sooner than most people think. But right now, the the main thing stopping the car companies from doing this is the considerable technological hurdle. Also, the significant costs of replicating the built-in sensor suite and processing power we get for 'free' when we have a human driver.

      eyes + ears + brain > radar + lidar + camera(s) + sonar + microphone + cpu

      For now, for this problem.

  36. For the most part people who talk, text or most anything else on cellphones while driving are irresponsible narcissistic assholes who at best disrupt the flow of traffic because most them drive significantly below the speed limit and change lanes suddenly because thy suddely realize their turn is coming up. At the same time I am unconvinced that there needs to be a law, except for a penalty enhancer for an accident.

    I am firm in the belief that the federal government does not have the power to outlaw texting itself, nor should it. Rep. McCarthy has proven that she does not understand how our federal government is supposed to work. That there are some states have not passed an antitexting law is not a reason for the feds to usurp that choice. She is unfit for office as she has embraced a governing philosophy that has corrupted our federalist system and turned it on it's head.

    1. ...change lanes suddenly because thy suddely realize their turn is coming up.

      RC'z Law is still in effect.

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  38. outlawing all these petty annoyances comes down to one thing. Are you for or against empowering the state over your fellow citizen? He's probably an ahole, but I'll take my fellow citizen every time.

    Careless driving is already illegal.

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