On Driving Laws

A new technology is distracting drivers and causing worrying incidents throughout our nation. Certain states are passing laws to stop drivers from being overly distracted by their fancy new gadgets, even as research shows how dangerous this technology is. Drivers are disgusted by its prevalence.

Although this may sound like a story from today, it is in fact what happened in the 1930s with a technology known as the car radio.  Today, no one could imagine driving without their beloved radio, but driving with a radio was the talking on a cell phone of years past. Modern motorists are under attack from lawmakers who want to force them to wear seatbelts, avoid electronic devices, travel at snail like speeds, endure constant DUI checkpoints, and be faced with unfair tickets in corrupt efforts to raise money for local governments.

Many of us have come to accept the seatbelt laws that most states have passed, promoting harsh fines to drivers who fail to wear their seatbelts.  Wearing a seatbelt is common sense safety. So are looking both ways while crossing the street, eating healthy, exercising, and practicing safe sex.  Do we force people to do any of these actions? Of course not, even though failing to do those activities contributes to far more health care costs than a failure to wear seatbelts. We should all have a choice with regards to how we live our lives.  Seatbelt laws represent a slippery slope, a way that government can begin to tell its citizens what they need.  I believe, unlike proponents of seatbelt laws, that drivers are smart enough to decide if they want to wear a seatbelt or not.  The only person harmed by a driver not wearing a seatbelt is the driver himself and if that driver wants to be stupid, I believe it is his right to be stupid.

To What End? (Courtesy of Flickr User Gamma Man)

This brings us to the question of actions taken in situations where other people are endangered, that is crashes. The widely spread viewpoint is that the government should stop the dangerous practices of talking while driving, since it is apparently so pernicious and distracting. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently recommended that all electronic devices be banned during car use.  Yet, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s publicly available statistics analysis[1] that it links to on the anti-texting site distraction.gov show that we probably should be less worried about cell phones and more worried about extremely dangerous distractors like conversing with a passenger (found in 15.9% of all crashes), focusing on other internal objects (10.6%), retrieving objects (6.8%), looking at other occupant’s actions (7.4%), eating or drinking (5.7%), or a variety of other activities that were involved in more accidents than being on the phone (conversing, dialing, and texting combined were in 3.4% of all accidents).

Naturally, these statistics cannot tell us what causes a crash. But distraction is pervasive and the solution is not to lock drivers into a small bubble. Until the advent of autonomous cars, we must accept that driving has many risks. Drivers have a responsibility to keep their eyes on the road and focus, but unenforceable blanket bans that don’t take into account each driver's individual capabilities simply make life more difficult for motorists.  Any driver seen to be engaging in reckless driving should be stopped by law enforcement officials, but punishing an act that can lead to distracted driving is inefficient and a violation of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, low speed limits fail to accurately reflect traffic patterns. The National Motorist’s Association (NMA) has organized events in which they fill a highway with drivers going at the speed limit, causing massive congestion, to show just how unrealistic these speed limits are. Meanwhlie, speed traps waste valuable police time in an effort to gain money for local governments. In fact, many municipalities have decided not to install red light cameras, not because they are ineffective at reducing traffic fatalities (they have been shown to lower accident rates significantly), but because they lower violations so much the city loses revenue. It is outrageous that officers are often illegally given quotas of tickets they must write  to net a city money.  Millions of drivers are the victims of unfair tickets that they then must take time and effort to fight in court.

Furthermore, the aggressive lobby Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD Inc.), a political corporation our school allows on its campus. MADD has numerous issues with its internal fundraising policies, but for now I will focus on its public campaigning. We now see our rights against warrantless search and seizure violated at DUI and DWI checkpoints and inaccurate breathalyzer tests showing misleading Blood Alcohol Contents (BAC).  Accurate blood tests are the only way to definitively show a person’s BAC.  As police officers routinely apply breathalyzer tests at routine stops, they net people who were driving safely but were technically impaired under our current laws.  The violator, who may have been driving entirely safely, now faces severe penalties, like driver’s license revocation or jail time. Although serious DUI penalties kick in over the .08 BAC, it is not until .15 that impairment correlates with accident.  Meanwhile, DUI offenders are not always subject to a full jury trial, a worrying fact, considering the severe penalties they face. Often, Victim Impact Panels (VIPs), sobbing victims of drunk driving incidents, are brought before judges during sentencing in an attempt to influence the judge, who ought to be influenced only by the law he swore to uphold.  A driver who may be monitoring his BAC carefully is still not allowed to have alcohol in the car. A driver should be held responsible if he drives in a way that endangers others. If someone drinks safely in a bar, their home, or their vehicle, the government should not be concerned.

MADD has also inflated statistics regarding drunk driving fatalities, along with the NHTSA. Since 2003, the NMA and getmadd.com have offered a 20,000 dollar reward to anyone who can substantiate the outrageous and false statistics MADD and the government propagate. The reward remains unclaimed. Drunk driving is a hazard to those on the road and impaired drivers should face penalties. MADD now compares alcohol to heroin.  But MADD, whose founder has repudiated for being too prohibitionist, seems to support restrictions on alcohol itself.  The head of MADD Delaware publicly criticized President Obama for his 2009 ‘beer summit’, saying that it was inappropriate for the President to drink in public and a MADD ad campaign

It is time motorists, perhaps on their own, perhaps via their union, the NMA, took matters into their own hands when it comes to intrusive laws that interfere with driver’s civil liberties and fail to seriously reduce fatalities.  The answer to traffic deaths is not a government crackdown. It is education and training, followed by enforcement that ensures motorists are safe, not that a local government gets its coffers fattened.


[1] http://www.distraction.gov/download/research-pdf/Distracted-Driving-and-Driver-Roadway-Environmental-Factors.pdf