Here Come the Federal Cell Phone Cops

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Just when you thought there was nothing left for Congress to federalize,along comes a bill by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jon Corzine(D-N.J.) that would regulate how Americans use their cell phones whiledriving. Apparently no human action is too small or parochial for thefederal government to police. So now Congress wants to play the role oflocal traffic cop, too.

The bill goes by the acronym “CRASH Act”: “The Call Responsibly and StayHealthy Act.” (Is anyone else a little tired of these silly bill nameslawmakers invent to attract media coverage?) The CRASH Act would requirethat states impose restrictions on hand-held cell phone calling or risklosing a portion of their federal highway funds. This is also known asblackmail: “Do what the feds say or no taxpayer dough, got it?”

Congress might as well abolish state and local governments and set trafficand vehicle operation standards for the nation. In fact, the feds alreadyimpose rules on several things in your car, including the following: airbags, seat belts, tire safety, crash standards, gas mileage, emissionlimits, fuel taxes, drinking age requirements, and, until recently, thenationwide 55-mph speed limit. It goes without saying that all this activityis of dubious constitutionality, and a federal cell phone law stands on evenshakier legal footing.

But state-level cell phone bans aren’t needed either. There are far moredistractingactivities inside a car—such as tinkering with your car stereo or arguingwith a passenger—that we currently do not prohibit. A recent study by theUniversity of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center analyzed morethan 32,000 traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers to determine whatfactors contributed to those accidents. Among the top causes were: outsideobjects, persons or events (29.4 percent of accidents surveyed); adjustingthe radio, cassette, or CD player (11.4 percent ); and other occupants ofthe vehicle (10.9 percent ).

The less significant causes were: moving objects in the vehicle (4.3percent ); other objects or devices in vehicle (2.9 percent ); adjustingvehicle / climate controls (2.8 percent ); eating and drinking in the car(1.7 percent ); using or dialing on a cell phone (1.5 percent ); andsmoking-related distractions (0.9 percent ).

Cell phone bans might also have unintended consequences. For example, Rep.Ackerman’s bill would force drivers either to use a hands-free device or topull off to the side of the road to make a call. Such a prohibition alreadyexists in Suffolk County, N.Y., which is partially within Ackerman’scongressional district. Tragically, a few days after Ackerman introduced hisfederal mandate, a driver in Suffolk County pulled over to the side of theroad to comply with the law and was struck by a delivery truck and killed.With the nation’s highways growing increasingly congested, mandating thatdrivers pull over to make a call would only exacerbate traffic congestionand simultaneously place drivers at risk.

So if cell phone bans aren’t the answer, what are concerned policy makers todo? Instead of banning specific activities inside vehicles, the bettersolution would be to enforce existing laws against reckless or negligentdriving. If drivers are weaving in and out of traffic and posing a risk toothers, they should be pulled over and ticketed, regardless of why they aredoing so.

Finally, technology is helping solve a problem it created. “Hands-free”devices, one-touch speed dialing, “on-board” navigation devices, andvoice-activated calling systems are enabling drivers to live by the old “10& 2” rule and keep both hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Policymakers should be patient and let technology solve this problem forthem. In the meantime, federal lawmakers should get out of the business oftelling us what to do in our cars.