February 24, 2013

Our View: Ban on cellphone use by drivers is common sense

And contrary to what you hear in Augusta, lawmakers can legislate common sense.

You can't legislate good driving or common sense, according to Rep. Wayne Parry, an Arundel Republican on the Transportation Committee.

click image to enlarge

A driver talks on his cellphone while driving on Portland's Congress Street. Common sense and research tell us that using a cellphone is a distraction for drivers.

2013 staff file photo/John Ewing

That's why he joined with nine colleagues to kill a bill that would have made it illegal to talk on a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle.

Parry said that enacting the law would open a "Pandora's box" of regulation, but that box has been open for a long time.

Common sense would have told people that it's a bad idea to drink and drive, yet millions of Americans did just that and thousands were killed every year as a result. It wasn't common sense that dramatically reduced the number of drunken driving deaths, it was tough state laws that raised the drinking age, lowered the legal blood-alcohol limit and imposed harsh penalties on people who broke the law.

Common sense would have told us that wearing a seat belt is a good idea. But people still chose by the millions to ignore that, and were unnecessarily killed and injured when they were ejected from vehicles when they crashed.

It took a massive public education effort and digging into that "Pandora's box" of regulation to make failing to buckle up an infraction. As that is enforced, more people are doing what common sense should have told them was in their best interest.

Now common sense and research tell us that using a cellphone is a distraction for drivers.

The devices cause drivers to take their eyes off the road and, worse, take their minds off what they are doing just when they should be the most focused.

Parry was not the only lawmaker to defy common sense. Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said, "I don't think there's anything inherently dangerous in talking on a cellphone when you're driving."

The National Transportation Safety Board sees things differently and has been calling for a complete ban on the use of electronic communication devices by drivers since 2011, after finding that drivers on cellphones are responsible for about 3,000 deaths a year. The NTSB found that the activity is inherently dangerous, and that talking on a hands-free device is just as bad as holding a handset.

Others opposed the bill for other bad reasons. Some argued that it has too many exemptions, or that it wasn't strong enough because it permits hands-free devices.

No law is perfect, but legislators are supposed to try to make bills better, not throw them out because they don't solve every problem all at once.

Someday, when we look back at driving while talking on a cellphone in the same way we view driving drunk and not wearing a seat belt today, we will wonder why our lawmakers didn't have more common sense.


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