On Jan. 1, 2015, San Antonio will begin enforcing a new cell phone ban for drivers. The ban is, by many accounts, common sense and will catch the city up with progressive California and New York bans. It also happens to be a terrible idea.
To begin, let it be said that I do not condone texting or talking on the phone while driving. It is undoubtedly a distraction, the consequences of which are seen everywhere. Any time I see poor driving—swerving, driving 15 miles an hour on the highway, crashing into cement barricades—it is doubtless because the driver is focused on a handheld device and not the primary task of driving. It goes without saying that the tragedies we see in the news where kids or families are killed in accidents due to distracted driving are horrible, and we should do all we can to eliminate such senseless catastrophes.
This ban is not the answer.
There are five key reasons why this City Council ordinance is not only not good, but potentially harmful:
1. The law is redundant.
The purpose of the law is to reduce accidents caused by distracted driving. A brief survey of the city ordinances will show that distracted driving is already prohibited. Existing law does not specifically mention mobile communication devices, but it does prohibit operating a car “in a manner that creates an unreasonable risk of harm to persons or property” (Sec. 3-77). In 14 words, the current code accomplishes what the new law (704 words) attempts, and then some. We have grounds to question why we need a new law in the first place.
The inquisitive will note that, in the age of mobile devices and texting, traffic accident fatalities are falling and have reached lows that haven’t been recorded since the 1950s. The reasons for this trend have to do with better safety technology and more awareness of the dangers. But the tragedy of distracted driving accidents is so compelling that few can turn away—‘Surely deaths are going up because I see them posted on my newsfeed’. In fact, these tragedies are happening to a lesser degree. What’s in place currently is already working; this new law adds nothing to these efforts and might well undermine them.
2. The law is inconclusive.
It is specifically designed to eliminate distractions by use of mobile devices, but it leaves unmentioned any number of other distractions. We don’t have a law, for instance, that says cleaning up a coffee spill while driving is illegal; nor do we have a law that says juggling three-toed sloths is illegal. And so, if we are to be law-abiding citizens, then we should engage in all the lion-taming and kabuki we wish while driving, but we dare not change the song playing on our mobile devices.
Doubtless, the law will make it easier for policemen to crack down on dangerous driving and for prosecutors to punish drivers. It does so by making tangible the very abstract concept of distraction. If a person is using a device, then they are breaking the law. But even the average citizen can see why there should be a limit to this kind of legislation. We can’t make a law for every foolish or bizarre thing that people do to cause harm. If we were to do that, the ordinances would expand faster than the universe and still not be able to improve the conditions of life.
This is not illegal:
3. It throws out the baby with the bathwater.
We know that mobile devices can be distracting, but they can also be highly functional. This new law prohibits functional uses of the devices as well as the distracting and dangerous uses. Music is a good example, so are audiobooks and GPS direction. With this new law, all of these highly functional and minimally dangerous activities are prohibited. As with many laws, the good is thrown out to avoid the bad. We all know that mobile devices can be distracting, but taking selfies while driving 65 mph in traffic isn’t their only function.
4. It doesn’t solve the problem and might make it worse.
When there are loopholes, people will find them, and it might mean even more dangerous behavior. I lived in California when the mobile phone ban went into effect and saw how it affected driving. In short, it didn’t. The only real change in behavior was that people started holding their devices lower so that cops couldn’t see what they were doing. This had the double effect of distracting drivers more (because now they had to conceal their actions) and diverting their attention even further from the road ahead. The California law had a provision that stated any mobile phone used while driving must be in hands-free mode. So people simply put their phones on speaker and talked that way, all the while holding it in their hands as if nothing were different. If the law is idiotic, people will act idiotically in order to obey it.
5. The law doesn’t make us good, even when we’re following it.
In order to truly be good drivers, people must conscientiously prohibit themselves from being distracted. The law might force people to act in a way that we assume to be safe, but, when the law is not looking, people are free to act in any way they desire. Indeed, they will be compelled to do so as a result. When paying attention to the letter of the law, people readily forget the spirit of the law.
As the restrictions pile up, they turn into drones that can do nothing for themselves and must be told how to act in all crucial situations. And that is when you get authorized idiocy and by-the-book buffoonery. People speed up to red lights and cut off other drivers because of course there is no law to stop them from doing that. Their behavior is perfectly legal, but the effect is inefficient, unproductive, and often rather harmful.
The skeptic is obliged to wonder: Does the city authority (the legal system in general) have a role in this at all? Someone needs to stop people from texting while driving. Should it not be through the city council and law enforcement?
We can all agree that reducing traffic accidents is a good goal, and reducing distractions like those provided by mobile devices is a good place to start. But specific laws geared toward behavior prohibition cannot possibly produce the desired results. If anything, the city can help us achieve our mutual goals by getting out of our way in our efforts to live and work here. Spend time and money to ensure smoother traffic flow, reduce time stopped at pointless red lights, and expedite dangerous construction conditions. It should welcome companies like Uber and Lyft that make ride-sharing easier (to get social-media-inclined drivers off the road), and it should usher in technologically advanced car companies like Tesla that promise to make computer-aided driving a reality in the years to come.
There are things that the city can do; this ban is not one of them.