When it comes to “shame on you” legislation, nobody outperforms the social engineers in Sacramento. The year-round lawmakers in the great state of California are the undisputed kings of “Tsk-Tsk” laws, and their latest came last week when they outlawed the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I get miffed as much as the next guy by folks who let their vehicles drift as they chat away with one hand permanently pressed to their ear. And, DUI-T (driving under the influence of texting) is just plain stupid — though I bet I’m not the only one who has looked at a text message while driving and then replied at a stop light.
It’s a dumb thing to do and I’ll be the first to admit I deserved a ticket for it. But here’s the rub: My cell phone isn’t the problem. And, besides, there are hundreds of things we do in cars that distract us from safe driving. Cell phone use is just one … and by far not the worst.
By outlawing cell phone use in cars (hands-free use is still legal if you are over 18, and all cell phone use is still OK if you are driving a commercial vehicle, which makes the law even stupider), California distracts from the real problem — the failure to pay full attention while driving. And here’s the news flash the California do-gooders missed: Inattentive behavior behind the wheel is already against the law in California, as it is in every other state in the union.
Here’s a litany of things I consider likely to contribute to illegal driving behavior.
DUI-F — Driving under the influence of food. You’ve done it. I’ve done it. And we all know that it’s near impossible to drive attentively while nibbling, not to mention drive well while eating a full-course meal — a Big Mac in one hand; big honking soda in the other; fries between the legs; and steering with both knees. Bad behavior for sure. But, shall we outlaw eating food in the car?
DUI-K — Driving under the influence of screaming kids in the back seat. Who among us hasn’t turned fully around and yelled: “Let go of your sister’s hair! Don’t make me stop the car!” Shall we outlaw yelling at the kids in the car?
DUI-D — Driving under the influence of a dog in the car. It’s distracting enough watching the family pet pee in the back seat. I only hope that those drivers who allow the pooch to sit on their laps while they drive get the same treatment sometime. Shall we outlaw pets in the car?
DUI-SR — Driving under the influence of satellite radio. In the old days there were just a few AM and FM stations to fiddle with. Now I have hundreds of channels, including full coverage of every baseball game played in the major leagues. Between switching from the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants games while also keeping an ear out on the Bob Dylan channel, CNBC and Oprah, I barely have time to drive. Shall we outlaw fiddling with the radio in cars?
DUI-M — Driving under the influence of makeup. Have you seen this before? With a full tilt to the right and forward, the driver looks into the rear-view mirror and applies makeup to one eye while (presumably) the other eye is watching traffic ahead. (As an aside, when I see this I wonder just how good a makeup job anyone could possibly do under such conditions. Do DUI-M’s arrive at work looking like the Joker?) But I digress. Shall we legislate against the use of eyeliner and lipstick in cars?
DUI-N — Driving under the influence of neon signs. I challenge anyone to drive the Strip and pay full attention to the traffic in front of them. It is impossible. The fountains, the lights, the billboards are all designed to distract drivers from their task at hand.
Shall we outlaw looking at flashing neon signs near roadways?
DUI-G — Driving under the influence of gawking. This is the mother of all distractions because it is caused by an accident most likely caused by one of the distractions above. Does anyone drive by an accident and not look? Maybe even pick up the cell phone and tell someone about the traffic jam? Shall we outlaw rubber-necking at accidents?
OK, enough with the stretched examples. You get the picture.
The point is that the lowly cell phone (not to mention the even more distracting — and therefore more illegal — iPhone) is not the problem. Bad driving is the problem. And that, dear Nevadans, is already illegal.
On this weekend in which we mark our country’s birth, ought we not celebrate our freedom to be and to do things so long as they don’t harm others, instead of banning innocent and useful tools in a misguided attempt to somehow preempt bad behavior?
I say so and add: Let California be California if it must, but let Nevada stay free.
Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@review journal.com) is publisher of the Review-Journal and president of Stephens Media. To get daily thoughts and observations from the publisher of your favorite newspaper, see Sherman Frederick’s blog “The Complete Las Vegan” at lvrj.com/blogs/sherm/.