Today is the first day of the Big Deceit.
That’s the myth perpetuated by legislators, law enforcement folks, cell phone companies – and frankly, editorial writers – that Washington drivers are safer today than they were yesterday.
We will be safer, we’re told, because the 2010 Legislature stiffened the ban on holding cell phones to our ears while we drive. Rather than require cops to catch drivers doing something else illegal first, they now can stop and cite drivers if they see them holding a phone to the side of their heads.
“This is a public-safety issue,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire when she signed Senate Bill 6345.
Not really. But the deceit starts with the words used to describe the new law. This isn’t a cell-phone ban. More calls might very well be made once drivers take a false sense of security from the implicit government endorsement of “hands-free” devices.
And it isn’t a mandate that drivers use “hands-free” devices, because “hands-free” includes cords connected to phones that we can still legally hold with our hands. Drivers can dial, scroll, search for and store numbers all with their eyes on the phone, not the road.
No, this is a ban only on holding a phone to our ears and talking. While that has been shown to be unsafe, it is equally unsafe to have a conversation using speakers or ear pieces or wireless devices.
All research – ALL research – shows that it is not the phone but the conversation that causes what is termed inattention blindness. It isn’t the use of our hands on something other than driving; it’s the use of our brains on something other than driving.
So the honest response, the research-based response, would be to pass a law that no driver can hold any cell-phone conversation in a moving vehicle. But as already noted, honesty was not the point. That’s because sponsors of the bill wanted something to take credit for and knew they couldn’t get a real ban passed. The cell-phone companies are too powerful, drivers are too self-important, legislators are too queasy.
So demands to ban all cell-phone use by drivers were rebuffed. Instead, lawmakers chose to scapegoat those who hold phones to their ears and lionize those who use earpieces or speakers. They repeatedly cited research on the dangers of cell-phone use by drivers without acknowledging that the same research says hand-held and hands-free are equally hazardous.
And they engaged in tortured bill drafting to make the nonsensical make sense. Under the new law we can hold a phone, stare at it and dial it as long as we don’t lift it to our ear. We can dial a number but not send a text message. We can read a contact list on a phone’s screen, but we can’t read a text message.
Somehow, knowing that, we are expected to conclude that the new law isn’t a joke.
You know the sponsors are on shaky ground when they resort to the “Well, it’s better than nothing,” defense. Studies of accident data, however, show no reduction in states that have done what Washington is doing.
It might even be worse than doing nothing because those who have studied the issue worry that once drivers have been forced to pad the profits of hands-free-device manufacturers, they’ll make more calls.
And since all calls – regardless of the device – cause an impairment equal to drunken driving, the roads could well become less safe starting today.
In deference to a feel-good but ultimately dangerous law, some drivers will now have to cough up $124 for engaging in the same unsafe behavior that other drivers are engaging in without penalty.
So I’m fine with a total ban. I guess I’m not as important as those who must place and receive all those calls while behind the wheel. But doing what the Legislature and governor did under the guise of protecting public safety is a deceit, starting today.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics