• It can wait
    February 15,2014

    The Vermont House wants us to stop behaving like idiots.

    That’s what we’re doing when we text while driving, poke at our iPhones, search for songs, check our email, talk on the phone in our hand. We’ve all done it, and probably most of us have looked up in alarm to find that we have veered into the wrong lane.

    Electronic devices did not invent idiocy behind the wheel. One Vermonter recalls speeding down a freeway in Los Angeles in his girlfriend’s yellow Mustang while looking at a map. When he looked up, the traffic in front of him had stopped, and it was only the screeching of brakes that prevented disaster.

    Electronic devices, however, have a particular allure. They draw the eye — touch this icon and Google Maps will tell you where you are. The trouble is the utility pole beside the road may tell you where you are before Google Maps does.

    It is no longer legal in Vermont to text while driving, which is probably the most egregious automotive malfeasance involving an electronic device. Some states have mounted aggressive campaigns to curb texting behind the wheel, such as New York, which has erected signs saying, “It Can Wait” and setting aside texting areas beside the highway.

    The Vermont House has given wide approval to a bill that would ban the use of any handheld device behind the wheel, including cellphones. Already, Vermont bans the use of cellphones by novice drivers, perhaps giving too much credit to non-novice drivers who often show they have little more sense than a 15-year-old with a cellphone in his hand.

    Testimony in the House included the story told by the member from Cavendish, Mark Huntley, whose son died two years ago at age 17 in a car crash. Huntley thought his son was probably searching for a song on his iPhone. “I’d seen him do it a hundred times,” Huntley said. “He’d be all over the road.”

    That is the kind of story that blunts the libertarian appeal of those who don’t like the state telling them what to do. There is a strong strain in Vermont of self-sufficiency and self-reliance; people like to make their own decisions — about using their cellphone or wearing a motorcycle helmet. There is a resistance to the advance of the nanny state and rules that imply we don’t know what’s best for ourselves.

    Indeed, there are certain areas where foolish behavior is harmless, and there are other areas where it endangers others. The state has an interest in restraining behavior that endangers others. We know by now that distracted drivers are a danger akin to drunken drivers, both to themselves and to others. Legislators ought not to be afraid of reaching that conclusion. Huntley understands it to be true.

    The cellphone bill has the backing of both Republicans and Democrats, though its fate in the Senate is uncertain. There is an argument to be made that, if the Legislature passes laws that will not be taken seriously by the public, it is undermining its own credibility and the credibility of the law. There is also an argument, favored by Gov. Peter Shumlin, that it is not possible to legislate common sense.

    But it’s not true. Over time we have passed laws that have made major gains in common sense. Our laws require the wearing of seat belts, saving thousands of lives. Our laws discourage smoking, saving more thousands of lives.

    It will not be easy to enforce the ban on the use of hand-held devices, but the law will put the imprimatur of the state on a growing social norm holding that the use of hand-held devices while driving is a self-indulgent, foolish and dangerous practice. Let’s not be afraid to say it. We’ve all done it, so we know it’s true. The added convenience of checking messages or scrolling for a song is not worth it. It can wait.

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