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EDITORIAL

The state keeps trying to legislate common sense

But a lot of things besides texting and talking are distracting.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - 2:19 pm

Indiana's texting-while-driving ban has led to just a few dozen citations in its first five months in effect, and police are blaming it on restrictions in the law that make it difficult for them to enforce. Under Indiana law, officers are not permitted to confiscate a cellphone from a driver to try to determine if the driver did something illegal.

“We actually have to catch the person texting,” complains Bruce Qualls, supervisor of Muncie's traffic division. “So, it's a deal of you look over and are they dialing the phone? Are they actually texting? There's no way of really determining that.”

But isn't catching someone breaking the law the main idea in this country? Our justice system does not routinely permit forcing people to surrender the means to prove whether they're breaking the law or not. It's called unreasonable search and seizure, and to avoid it there must be some basis for suspecting illegal activity. Since the percentage of people who text while driving is still relatively small, just randomly confiscating cellphones is certainly not reasonable.

Indiana's experience is not unique. Other jurisdictions have also reported the same enforcement difficulty. In Nebraska, there were hardly any citations after 18 months. “Catching someone violating the law while texting is difficult,” one officer said. And so far, at least, enforcement of texting bans isn't really a top priority for police officers.

The main problem with such bans is that they single out just one form of the overall problem: distracted driving. According to a 2006 national study, 18 percent of all crashes and near crashes were caused by eye glances – looking away from the road to something else – of more than 2 seconds. That's enough to travel 64 yards – about two-thirds of a football field – at 65 mph. Such glances can be caused by texting and talking on cellphones, yes, but also by everything from eating to applying makeup to fiddling with the radio to being interested in a sight along the road.

It's a matter of judgment. You can urge people to exercise good judgment, even try to educate them on the dangers of bad judgment. But it's difficult to legislate common sense. But that's what the bans on texts try to do. And once that line has been crossed in the nanny-state frame of mind, it's hard to stop. Talking on a cellphone is seen as much less dangerous than texting – currently only nine states ban it, compared with 35 for texting. But the National Transportation Safety Board now wants talking banned, too – even with hands-free phones – despite the lack of evidence it would make any difference to safety.