Should we pass more laws restricting everyone’s liberty, expand the reach of government into our lives and provide government a new revenue stream because we are angry about one admittedly horrific incident where a criminal was not appropriately punished? I would hope not.
In an interview with The Atlantic back in 2009, Washington Post blogger Radley Balko said this:
If you’re naming a piece of crime legislation after a crime victim, it’s probably a bad law. It means you’re legislating out of anger, or in reaction to public anger over a specific incident. That’s generally not how good policy is made.
That is what is happening here. The outrage over what happened to Jake Owen is justified – the man who smashed into the car transporting Jake was roaring at 62 miles per hour and the driver never touched the brakes. He was distracted by a cell phone. But should everyone in Maryland be legally prohibited from using a cell phone while driving, when hundreds of thousands of people do it safely every day?
Reckless driving is already illegal. The fact that Devin McKeiver was fined a pathetic $1000 indicates that the penalties under the reckless driving law are too low and need to be increased. Targeting cell phone use addresses only one of many ways a driver can be distracted. Sometimes this can have hilarious results. See the relevant section from the Indiana Code prohibiting texting and driving:
Use of telecommunications device while operating a moving motor vehicle
Sec. 59. (a) A person may not use a telecommunications device to:
(1) type a text message or an electronic mail message;
(2) transmit a text message or an electronic mail message; or
(3) read a text message or an electronic mail message;
while operating a moving motor vehicle unless the device is used in conjunction with hands free or voice operated technology, or unless the device is used to call 911 to report a bona fide emergency.
So there you have it. Under this law, it is illegal to send a text message or an e-mail while driving, but it is not illegal to play a video game. Once again, the problem is not texting in and of itself, but distracted driving generally. We are missing the forest for the trees when we pass these bans.
If we’re serious about saving lives on the road, we need to stop scapegoating specific things that can be lethal distractions. Instead, we need to make sure people know they have a moral and legal obligation to keep their attention on the road. Any time any behavior causes a distraction that leads to an accident, the offender should be prosecuted. If there is a fatality, the punishment should be harsh and unforgiving – but we should not scapegoat something (such as talking on a cell phone) that can be done safely.