District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher has proposed a ban on hand-held cellphones while driving within our city limits. Recent studies have shown than it’s not necessarily the act of holding the mobile phone that is distracting, but the actual act of talking on the phone.
While a driver might have marginally less control of the vehicle with only one hand on the steering wheel, the rationale for the ordinance was particularly amusing. Gallagher was quoted by the San Antonio Express-News as saying, “Public safety is the bottom line. If this saves one life, it’s worth it.”
Politicians often speak with this high-minded hyperbole, especially in the aftermath of a tragic accident. Obviously, the idea that we should pass freedom-depriving laws to ensure the protection of a single life is usually nothing more than political gamesmanship meant to appeal to base emotions rather than to common sense.
If we really meant, “If it saves one life, it’s worth it,” we would reduce our speed limits, since it is speeding that most often leads to traffic fatalities. But we don’t want to live in a world of 25 mile-an-hour speed limits. That’s our societal choice.
The fact is, we make risk assessments every single day. Concerning our travel, we’ve decided as a society that we’re willing to live with the certain likelihood of additional loss of life in exchange for the convenience of getting places a little faster. Instead of lowering speed limits, we’ve actually raised them – but where is the outcry here? Like talking on a phone, speed of travel for ordinary citizens is a luxury, not a necessity – but it’s a risky luxury most wouldn’t sacrifice.
Anyone could come up with dozens of ordinances that if passed would certainly save lives but would come at a social expense. We could ban contact sports such as football and boxing. We could ban monkey bars and swing sets. We could ban dogs including pit bulls and Rottweilers. This would certainly save lives. If these measures would save one life, would they be worth it?
There are other driving habits that are perhaps even more distracting and lead to danger on the roads. We could fill the city code with bans on personal grooming, tending to unruly children in the back seat, using navigation systems, looking at maps, adjusting the radio, rubbernecking while driving by emergency vehicles, or searching for a fallen French fry.
Proponents of cellphone bans in the vehicle cite statistics of the number of accidents caused by distracted driving, but none of these numbers point to accidents caused specifically because of use of a mobile device. The thing is, nearly all accidents – even before the advent of cellphones – are caused by some oversight or a diversion of our attention. Some might then argue, then, why not ban distracted driving altogether?
Nearly everyone would agree that talking on the phone is a distraction that makes a driver more dangerous. It’s impossible to dispute this. The real issues are how much more dangerous is it, whether we are comfortable with that added risk, or is it worth passing an ordinance. What is questionable is the efficacy of an ordinance banning hand-held mobile devices. We pass laws to change behavior, to make people safer. We don’t, nor shouldn’t, pass laws to receive funding or to merely give fellow council members a hollow sense of accomplishment.
What’s particularly amusing is our Council’s determination to promote virtually meaningless, feather-in-the-cap ordinances. Unfortunately, some of these initiatives have unintended consequences. In 2010, there was the ban on texting, which arguably has led to increasingly unsafe driving as texting drivers now keep their phones in their lap to avoid detection by law enforcement. Unfortunately, this also keeps their eyes further away from the road. The reality is that a ban on hand-held mobile devices is not going to stop people from using their mobile devices. It’s too late.
We’re already habituated to interacting with our technology on a moment-by-moment basis. What an ordinance would do is simply make us a little more clever in hiding our behavior, not to mention making us a little more distracted in the process, because now that’s one more thing to think about other than actual driving. It would also unfairly discriminate against the poor, who often do not have the newest cars fitted with the Bluetooth technology necessary to carry on a hands-free (and equally distracting) conversation.
Hopefully, level heads will prevail in this debate and our City Council will focus on issues that matter and that impact our community in a meaningful way.
*Featured/top image: Photo by Flickr user Jim Legans, Jr.