Laws of common sense

Frank Di Giacomo
Posted on April 6, 2010

In the face of lawmaking efforts that one deems unnecessary, a familiar response is “You can’t legislate common sense.”

A few years ago, a New Jersey legislator used that phrase in response to a colleague’s proposed bill to ban bicyclists from using hand-held cell phones.

Back in the 1930s, famed cowboy performer and social commentator Will Rogers wrote, “You can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people.”

Sure, lawmakers are known to get carried away from time to time. But with all due respect to Will Rogers and others who have expressed similar sentiments, sometimes you have to legislate common sense.

For example, it seems obvious that you should not drive a school bus (or a car, a boat, farm machinery, etc.) while intoxicated. Does that mean there’s no need for drunken-driving laws? Absolutely not. Even those who don’t see a problem with getting behind the wheel after pounding shots at the tavern can understand deterrents like hundreds of dollars in fines, loss of license and possible jail time.

Focus on distraction

Under the direction of Secretary Ray LaHood, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has made distracted driving a key target, apparently seeking to raise its urgency level closer to that of drunken driving. Since LaHood convened a national summit on the issue in September, the DOT has initiated a series of actions to combat distracted driving, with the focus being on use of cell phones.

In late January, the DOT unveiled a federal ban on texting for truck and bus drivers. However, the ban only applies to school bus drivers in limited cases: when they are covered by 49 CFR 390.17.

School bus drivers are not covered if they are employees of a government agency, such as a school board, or if they’re operating within the same state or transporting students to and from school. An example of a school bus driver who would be covered by 390.17 is a contractor-employed driver transporting students on a field trip out of state.

Still, the DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration may seek to bar other school bus drivers from texting, possibly in a forthcoming proposed rule to elaborate on the texting guidance that was issued in January.

Blanket ban

Some states already specifically prohibit school bus drivers from using cell phones — hand-held or hands-free — and some states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones or just from texting. And many school districts and contractors have their own policies in place for their drivers.

But a federal ban for school bus drivers as well as other commercial vehicle operators would reinforce the seriousness of the issue, set deterrents and bring up to speed those jurisdictions that haven’t established prohibitions themselves.

The key to success here is enforcement. In New Jersey, where I live, hand-held cell phone use is banned for all drivers, but it seems that no one is stopping offenders.

According to research by the University of Utah, using a cell phone — hand-held or hands-free — delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.

Sometimes we need to be protected from legislators. But sometimes they really do have our protection in mind. 

Related Topics: cell phones, legal issues

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