Governor George Pataki has put forth an executive order banning hand-held cellular telephone use in moving vehicles on roads throughout New York state. Drivers who want to make or receive calls on their cell phones must either use a headset or pull over and do their dialing when their cars are not in traffic.
On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable requirement. Adherents can point to a number of accidents that occurred when drivers were distracted by cell phones. The most recent such incident resulted in model Niki Taylor sustaining severe injuries when the driver of a car in which she was a passenger took his eyes off the road to see why his cell phone was ringing.
However, it behooves us to point out that cell phone use in cars--and on sidewalks and in theaters and bathtubs and just about every other place conceivable--is only one possible distraction to be visited upon a driver in a car. Almost immediately after the first "horseless carriages" were invented drivers found themselves facing distractions taking their attention away from the road ahead and the traffic around them. Conversations, animated or occasionally acrimonious, with spouses or associates, excited pets and quarreling children in the back seat all at one time or another have caused many a driver's concentration to waver. The first radio to be installed in a dashboard brought forth dire predictions of roadways soon to be littered with wrecked cars and the corpses of pedestrians, passengers and drivers. Today, as many Queens neighborhoods know too well, many cars on the road have better sound equipment than the average movie theater, and its installation has resulted in no appreciable increase in carnage on municipal roadways.
Drivers are now and probably always will be distracted by many things in their vehicles and outside. But we haven't seen any statistics that convince us that cell phones have caused any more accidents than any of the multitude of other distractions that can arise from the simple act of putting a human being behind the wheel of a car. Furthermore, attempts to eliminate those distractions even were they feasible, would bring about a far-reaching and pervasive intrusion of the rights of private citizens to conduct their own lives as they see fit that is contrary to the entire spirit of our democracy. Author Stephen King while walking along a road near his Maine home was severely injured by a driver who was distracted by his two dogs riding in his van. Are dogs, cats and other pets to be banned from cars? If so, who will do the banning and who will inspect all these vehicles to ensure they convey only human riders? Parents have had to quiet quarrelsome or excited children riding with them almost since cars were invented. Shall we forbid children from riding in cars? At what age are youngsters to be considered acceptable and worthy to ride in cars? Should all conversations between driver and passengers be limited to meaningless platitudes, and who will guarantee that they remain so? While many people who suffer the onslaught of relentlessly pulsating car stereo bass beats would be delighted to see such devices permanently banned from all moving vehicles, such a prohibition would doubtless violate Constitutional guarantees of free speech, as would all the other hypothetical interdictions we have mentioned.
A cell phone ban affecting medallion taxi drivers has been virtually ignored since it went into effect a year ago. There is no reason to imagine that a similar prohibition for passenger cars would have any better chance of success. Moreover, cellular phones have on more than one occasion demonstrated their usefulness in reporting accidents or bringing aid to stranded drivers. Headsets may prove impractical for many drivers for a number of reasons. Mandating their use might result in drivers having to forego the potential lifeline of a cell phone altogether. The results of such a development, especially for many older drivers, would be catastrophic.
Pataki's intentions are worthy, but his efforts are misdirected. Instead of banning cellular phones, time and money would be better spent in persuading drivers to act responsibly and with consideration for others when they get behind the wheel. This is an attainable goal, as advertising campaigns both commercial and in the public interest have proven. There is no need for the long arm of government at any level to reach in a car window and take our cell phones away.