You Can’t

Those of us who cover state government have heard our lawmakers say a couple of things quite often, neither of which is true.:

“You can’t legislate morality.” 

“You can’t legislate common sense.”  

And then they often do just that.

The second of those statements has been heard within the last week from some of those who are not enchanted with the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations that states totally ban cell-phone usage and text messaging by drivers.

The most recent collection of state laws between hard covers takes 20 volumes plus five annual supplements (bound volumes of statutes are not printed annually) containing 41 sections and 680 chapters.  There are not enough days left in our working life to count the paragraphs and words. All of this writing covers everything in the Ten Commandments, which were the first effort to legislate morality.  And common sense.

And you don’t have to leaf through too many of all of those pages to find common sense.  Don’t drive if your blood alcohol content is .08 or more.  Don’t speed.  Wear your seat belt, although the state won’t write you a ticket for failing to do so unless you’re exceeding common sense in some other way–running a stop sign, for example.  If you think a child has been abused, report the incident.  Wear a helmet if you’re riding a motorcycle.

As for the NTSB recommendation—one of about 20 recommendations the board made in the wake of the investigation of last year’s double-fatality crash on I-44 in eastern Missouri–the board has looked at a survey done by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration earlier this year.

The survey shows (to quote an old quiz show) the most common distracted driving behaviors are:

  1. Talking to other passengers (80%) and adjusting the radio (65%).Others are eating/drinking (45%), making/accepting phone calls (40%),using a portable music player (30%), and  interacting with children in the back seat (27%).
  2. Men are more likely than women to use navigation systems, smart phones for driving directions, and portable music players with headphones.
  3. Women are more likely to interact with children in the backset and do personal grooming (but only eight percent, compared to three percent of men who GWD, groom while driving).
  4. Men and women are equally likely to make or accept phone calls ($2% men, 39% women), read incoming e-mail or text messages (10% men, 9% women) and send messages (both 6%)
  5. Drivers younger than 25 are two to three times more likely than older drivers to read or send text messages or e-mails.

Some the answers are not surprising because they’re age-related.  The younger generation has grown up with communications technology and the idea that life is best lived if it is almost permanently plugged into other people’s lives.  The study says 44% of drivers 18-20 are likely to send text messages while driving and 45% of those who are 21-24.  For drivers older than that, the percentages are under 30.

Drivers 21-24 are three times more likely than those who are 25-34 and five times more likely than those 35-44 to wander out of the line or roadway while texting.

Assuming the state ever decides to fine people for cell-phone related activities while driving, what should be the fines?  The largest percentage of those responding says $100-$200 is adequate.

Missouri law says people 21 and younger should not text while driving.  If you’re between 22 and death, text away!   The young man who caused the I-44 wreck last year had sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes before the crash that killed him and a 15-year old girl on a school bus.  He was 19.

Obviously, the present law that legislates common sense for drivers 21 and younger didn’t do anything for him. But did an apparent lack of common sense have to cost a 15-year old girl her life, too?

Nobody knows how many people have obeyed that law. Nobody knows how many crashes have not occurred because of the state law that seems to have some degree of common sense mandated in it.

The NTSB says the loss of an innocent life when common sense is not exercised is behind its recommendations.

Board chairman Deborah Hersman was on C-Span’s “Washington Journal” this morning talking about this and other issues, and taking phone calls.

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