It's not my fault! It's the (lack of a) law!

Phil Gengler
2005-10-03 10:53:07

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story about a new Connecticut law that, in part, makes it illegal for drivers to talk on cell phones while driving. (Technically, the law makes it illegal to have a cellular phone "in the immediate proximity" of one's ear, as though holding a closed phone in your hand, which may then be near your ear since your elbow is resting next to the window, is the same as having a conversation into it.)

I fail to see what makes cell phones so big a distraction, especially compared to having a conversation with a passenger in the car. With a cell phone, at least, it's easier to resist the human tendency to look at the person we're talking to, and so you should be better able to keep your eyes and attention on the road. Now, there may be some actual basis for saying that talking on a cell phone is riskier than talking to a passenger; I haven't read the studies claiming this, so I don't know if they look at the risk with cell phones against the risk of normal, non-distracted driving, or against driving while carrying on other forms of communication. The play this information gets in the media, which is at least equally important, if not more so, to the general public's perception of the issue, is that talking on a phone while driving is more likely to get you involved in an accident than undistracted driving (which is pretty much a foregone conclusion).

While I think this law is unnecessary, it isn't what has so angry this morning. The last two paragraphs of the article are particularly infuriating:

And for some drivers, the law's extension beyond just talking was a welcome reminder that sharing the road requires concentration. Efrain Rosario, 22, an account manager for a Verizon Wireless store in Trumbull, said that on Aug. 10 he drove his 2005 Scion tC into the back of a Honda while reading a text message from a friend. If the law had been in place, he said, maybe he would have thought twice about looking down to read "What's up?"

"That 25-cent text message cost me a thousand dollars in damage," Rosario said, "and it ruined my night."

So, let me get this straight: this idiot thought he would be okay to check a text message while driving, got into an accident, and then claims that it's not his fault, because there wasn't a law prohibiting it? At some point, people have to take responsibility for their own actions; this guy chose defy common sense and got what was coming to him. He should not be able to shirk responsibility for what he did, and he certainly should have no basis for claiming there should be a law prohibiting that behavior. His defense that "had [a law] been in place ... maybe he would have thought twice" is the biggest load of bullshit I've seen lately outside of politics.

When there's an accident, and the cause was carelessness or recklessness, that's already illegal. If you drove around staring at the floor of your car the whole time, and got into an accident, that would be illegal. The fact that you weren't paying attention is not a defense, it's an indication that you ought to take responsibility for the fact that you screwed up. The same holds if you were looking into a mirror to change lanes, for example, and rear-end the car in front of you. You weren't paying attention to the road in front of you, and you're at fault. The fact that you weren't paying attention is, again, not a defense. So clearly, there's ample precedent, not to mention common sense, supporting the idea that this guy is the one to blame, and that a new law is not required. I'm certainly not aware of any movements to prohibit drivers from checking their mirrors, because it diverts their attention from the road in front of them.

I sincerely hope that people like Efrain Rosario are few and far between; given the stories I've heard about people doing stupid things, and then claiming the need for a law against them, however, isn't very encouraging. The purpose of government should not be to try and "protect" its citizens against anything and everything; to accept that should be the point of government would be to give it the power to control every move we make, from when and where we can drive to what we can have for dinner, and how we can make it. To keep this from happening, however, we, the people, need to do our part not to put ourselves and others into situations where harm is likely to emerge, whether the behavior is illegal or not. We also need to ensure that we do not allow others to cede our rights to the government in exchange for misguided protections against the actions of a few.