Few technological advances have aroused as much hostility from certain segments of the population as mobile phones. The often asocial and discourteous behavior of their owners has prompted many restaurants to ban the devices. The New Hampshire legislature is even considering a bill, H.B. 1273, that would outlaw the use of handheld cell phones while driving. The infraction would be treated like a speeding ticket.
As one might expect, proponents of this retaliatory legislation use “safety” to rationalize the prohibition. They reason that incidence of accidents is high enough to warrant the trampling of basic liberty. Of course, changing the car stereo or speaking with someone else in the car also contributes to accidents. Eating, chewing gum, reading maps, and putting on makeup can also distract a driver.
With a strict enforcement of the safeguards already in place, H.B. 1273 will have little or no effect on the number of automobile accidents.
Last month, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis studied the risk associated with cellular phones and driving. The study found “the adverse effect of cellular phone use on traffic safety is not sufficiently large to be detected in overall counts of fatalities.” The study also stated, “while cellular phone use has grown 17-fold between 1990-1998, U.S. traffic fatalities have continued a steady decline that began more than 30 years ago.” These findings directly contest the rationale for H.B. 1273.
In actuality, cellular phones are invaluable to safety because users have the ability to report accidents, criminal activity, or call for help. Furthermore, if the bill is altered to correct for these exigencies, the guilty party could claim that his use constituted an emergency. Such an out would erode respect for this law in particular and all law in general.
New Hampshire, like all other states, has a vehicular code of conduct. Speed limits, traffic signals, stop signs, and regulations for safety features all exist to promote safety. Tort law also exists for this purpose as deviant drivers are forced to pay damages for their recklessness. With a strict enforcement of the safeguards already in place, H.B. 1273 will have little or no effect on the number of automobile accidents.
In contrast to the dubiousness of the claims of accident reduction, the contention that H.B. 1273 will have a deleterious effect on public safety and individual liberty is grounded in fact. If a driver were prohibited from use of her phone in an emergency, the driver’s liberty, and perhaps life, would be compromised. The strong possibility that this law could lead to such human tragedy should be enough to keep the New Hampshire legislature from enacting this imprudent law.
Laws that single out a specific technology cannot keep pace with the rate of innovation in the American economy. The next generation of mobile phones is likely to incorporate paging, Internet, and locator technology. Such devices may need to always be on, and Global Positioning System (GPS) map technology requires more attention than even the most engaging phone conversation. What will be the state’s reaction to this technology? Should digital maps be banned as well?
The possibilities for future liberty-compromising legislation are endless. It is clear that the New Hampshire legislature would establish a dangerous precedent if H.B. 1273 is enacted into law.