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Cell Phone Safety Legislation

Legal Attempts to Make Cell Phones Safer for Drivers

cell phone legislation is a mixed bag of state pedagogy that subtly reflects some characteristics of red versus blue states. The idea of making cell phone use unlawful strikes a primal blow against individual’s rights for some government bodies. Texas recently set aside proposed cell phone legislation along with other “bills headed for scrap heap,” so read the headline in the Star-Telegram.

But a few states have waxed tough with drivers wielding cell phones as if they were driving as dangerously as knights with swords.

States Tough on Hand-held Cell Phone Use

With a goal toward stemming unsafe driving, three states so far have created statewide laws that ban the manual use of cell phones while driving. New York was the first to pioneer the legislation; modest fines of $100 are leveled at drivers caught with a phone in their hands. Connecticut and New Jersey followed suit. California has instituted the most recent legislation, effective for all drivers as of January 2008. From here the state-by-state cell phone legislation is confusing and spotty. In fact road atlases should make it a regular practice to publish the current cell phone driving laws alongside each state map. Otherwise how does a traveler keep track? A dozen states have made it illegal for school bus drivers to use cell phones. Another handful of states allow laws to be enacted by municipalities, as if that couldn’t be confusing; and then another half-dozen, including Florida, Oregon, and Mississippi don’t allow any cell phone bans to be imposed, period.

Legislation a Quick Fix for a Bigger Problem

Just how dangerous talking on a cell phone may be while driving is an elusive metric. Organizations, safety groups and government agencies have tried to study sample groups: they’ve polled drivers, they’ve installed on-board cameras to “see” driver-cell phone behavior and so forth. The outcome is a confusing amalgam of across the board unsafe driver distractions. Not only do drivers dial cell phones, but they fumble with CDs, tune the radio, reach for glove box items, eat, drink, and carry on involved conversations with passengers.

Nationwide Insurance published the results of a driver survey in early 2007. The results exposed an alarming, but not surprising, range of behaviors that serve as distractions. Legislative traction has most likely been based on the political climate and consumer safety stance on a state-by-state basis, because for most people the move to require drivers use hands-free phone sets still introduces the potential for emotional conversation, a leading cause of vehicular events. Hands-free or not, the element of conversation still is not removed from the environment. And who can remove talk, anyway?

Texting: the Next Frontier

Text messaging is one of the most popular means of communication via cell phone specifically for young adults and business people. If you thought dialing a cell phone number was a distraction, consider the lengths of text conversations a driver could conduct. In a valiant effort to curb this dangerous activity, Washington State enacted a law making the practice of texting while driving illegal. New Jersey is soon to follow with an anti-texting law of its own. Part of lawmakers’ incentive is the near fatal crash of Governor Corzine’s vehicle; law enforcement still dally with the notion that Corzine’s driver was embroiled in an emotional text message conversation.

Of course catching texting lawbreakers in any state is likely to prove to be a challenge. Which makes one wonder what incentive drives such a law. Drivers may have to be pulled over for careless or erratic driving to ever be caught.

Do States That Enact Cell Phone Laws do so to Appease Constituents?

There are indications that in Pennsylvania—where municipalities are allowed to make their own legal exceptions—and New York, politicians responded to tragic stories of victims killed by driver distractions, specifically cell phones. Usually laws come about in the wake of tragedy. No one wants a loved one killed by drivers dialing cell phones so where the data fits the argument, laws may have fell conveniently into place.

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