From the Crow's Nest / Ed Chrostowski
Law needed to get drivers' attention
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Connecticut's new "get tough" law against distracted driving is that the state legislature and governor found it to be necessary in the first place.
After all, it doesn't take a genius to recognize a "clear and present danger" when hands are on the steering wheel of a powerful vehicle while eyes are focused on everything but the road. A law shouldn't be needed to point out the obvious. Just plain common sense ought to be enough, but apparently it is in short supply.
Yet, texting and use of hand-held cell phones continue to divert the attention of too many drivers, putting themselves and all others on the roads in potentially deadly peril. In fact, during 2008, the most recent year for which such statistics were available, nearly 6,000 people in the United States died in highway accidents in which distracted drivers were involved, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Until now, DWD (driving while distracted) was simply stupid. As of Oct. 1, however, it also is illegal. Connecticut's government has deemed it necessary to protect us from ourselves.
The existing ban on use of hand-held phones while driving has been upgraded to include texting. The fine for a first offense is $100, getting caught a second time will cost a driver $150 and that increases to $200 for each additional violation. So far there has been no talk of suspending licenses of repeat offenders. The new law also eliminates the grace period granted to drivers who acquire and use hands-free phones after being caught using hand-held phones.
Of course, the law can be only as effective as its enforcement. Connecticut has had a law against using hand-held phones while driving for five years, but the practice is still widespread. Watching passing traffic at any street corner will attest to that. The new law seeks to improve enforcement, urging state and municipal police departments to step up their efforts.
In an e-mail message to constituents last week, State Rep. John Frey, Ridgefield Republican who co-sponsored the distracted driving bill, said the new law "was designed to bring in revenue for municipalities imposing these fines." There's a problem with that. The purpose of fines is to punish and deter. Regarding them as sources of revenue can present tempting opportunities that can lead to serious mischief. Still, it is true that municipalities deserve some revenues to offset their costs in enforcing the law. Twenty-five percent seems like adequate reimbursement, but will require alert and careful administration.
Moreover, this legislative substitute for common sense comes at a time when ultra-conservative politicians and their followers are railing against governments that have become too big, too intrusive and too paternalistic. But the primary role of government is to do for people what they can't or won't do for themselves. Social Security, Medicare and now attentive drivers are cases in point.
Thirty states now prohibit text messaging while driving, but only eight also ban use of hand-help phones. It does seem that both common sense and legislative "persuasion" are still lacking in too many places where the idiocy continues.
But what will be next? It is not at all uncommon to see drivers scanning road maps or fiddling with knobs on the dash board, bending to pick something up from the car floor or reaching into the back seat to tend to pet or a child, sipping a latte or munching on a burger. Certainly they are distracted drivers. Will it become necessary to legislate against all of these or will the light of reason and common sense finally dawn? One can only hope.
What is especially discouraging is that accidents caused by distracted drivers are almost always entirely preventable. If something critically important demands the driver's attention, it's simply a matter of pulling off the road to tend to it.
The other DWD (driving while drunk) is even more perilous, but it continues with alarming regularity. Rigid laws, ramped-up publicity, educational campaigns and stringent enforcement have not curtailed it. So, all things said and done, the ultimate answer must lie in each driver's personal responsibility and common sense.