Years ago, someone told me that anecdotes make for great news stories but lousy legislation. With rare exception, that's true.
Once told to the media, stories about victims and the failings of "the system" become ripe for legislators to exclaim, "There ought to be a law!" But every time someone utters those six words, our liberties are threatened. The trick is to ask at what point a liberty should be surrendered for the common good. If we're lucky, the answer is "very rarely."
Unfortunately, "very rarely" translates into "annually" - whenever the Legislature comes to town. This legislative session, our liberties are on the line again.
One of the biggest threats to our freedoms is in the form of a bill from Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, which would criminalize something as simple as calling your spouse to say you're stuck in traffic and running late.
No joke. Senate Bill 1030 would make it illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving. Five states and the District of Columbia have adopted similar legislation, under the guise of protecting citizens from harm. Yet we like it when public policy decisions - especially those that curtail our freedoms - are based on hard facts, not on some lofty idea that people are better off with government playing the role of mother hen.
The first question that ought to be asked by lawmakers is this: Is cell phone use more or less of a problem than any other driving behavior? The fact is, no one knows. Federal and state transportation safety experts lack hard evidence one way or another. Statistics for accidents involving cell phones are all lumped together under the broad category of "inattentive driving."
Accidents caused by drivers distracted by chatting up a friend on a cell phone look the same on paper as inattention caused by listening to the radio, conversing with a passenger or eating a burger. Strangely enough, no one is proposing a ban on any of those other activities.
While the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says any number of inattentive driving activities (using a cell phone, eating, listening to the radio and so on) caused 4,560 deaths nationwide in 2006, almost three times as many people were killed driving in inclement weather. Yet so far, there's been no proposal to ban driving during snow and rain. Another 1,480 people were killed while driving drowsy. Yet people are still allowed to drive their vehicles after what the government might consider "too little" sleep.
We can take this to the nth ridiculous degree: Nationwide in 2007 there were more than 148,000 injuries due to doors closing on fingers and hands. But strangely, car doors are still being installed on automobiles at an alarming rate, and roughly 100 percent of cars sold in the U.S. were equipped with doors.
If you were to take the statistics in total, a hungry, groggy driver getting into a door-adorned, radio-enabled car is a recipe for disaster.
Why hasn't the Legislature banned this combination of activities? Because it's silly, that's why. Because, try as you might, you can't pass a law to prevent every kind of tragedy, unless that law requires everyone to run around in bubble wrap. Because while the number of cell phones in use has gone up exponentially, the number of automobile accidents has actually decreased over the last several years, disproving the notion that there's a need for a new law.
Finally, this bill and its companion to ban text messaging while driving are unnecessary and redundant. A person who causes an accident by texting or phoning is guilty of inattentive driving under our existing statutes. It's the same crime that is applied if a person were to cause an accident while putting on makeup, reading a newspaper or changing lanes without looking.
There will always be dangers all around us. And, sometimes, those dangers require legislative action. But this cell phone ban tries to legislate absolute safety. There's no such thing, and there never will be if we expect to retain our rights as citizens of a free country.