Hands-free legislation: lifesaving or misguided?

Sean Irwin

The latest legislation banning text messaging while driving may come as a surprise to California residents for the wrong reasons. If you find it hard to believe this was not already illegal, you are not alone. Rocketing around in a steel “deathmobile” while typing text messages on a tiny screen in a handheld chunk of plastic and wires might be a bad multitasking decision, but until Sept. 24, text messaging while driving carried no legal consequences. This sort of delayed action and lack of common sense is typical to legislation surrounding new technology, and highlights the fact that lawmakers are out of touch with important aspects of emerging technologies. A new law banning text messaging is here, better late than never. But hands-free laws miss the point.

The phone is not the problem, but instead the person talking on the phone. Yes, holding a cell phone to your ear requires the use of a single hand, which necessarily leaves the other hand to do all of the work driving requires. If the driver would otherwise be using both hands to steer, the use of a phone would obviously cause problems. But plenty of drivers aren’t so dependent on the old “10 and 2” recommended hand position on the steering wheel. Many, in fact, only use a single hand to steer, which is perfectly legal, provided that the free hand isn’t holding a cell phone.

So why the ban on cell phones specifically? Drivers might take a hand off the steering wheel to switch on headlights, activate their turn signal or windshield wipers, or manipulate the air conditioning and radio controls. Less responsible drivers put forth a considerable amount of effort attempting to locate objects on the passenger side floorboard or in the glove compartment. Why are none of these actions illegal?

One of the more common arguments against the use of cell phones while driving is that talking requires too much concentration, and takes away from the focus necessary while driving.

This is absurd.

Carrying on a phone conversation while driving is perfectly legal, regardless of the distraction it presents. Just make sure you’re using one of those touted hands-free devices.

Of course, these are the same devices that have been the butt of jokes since their introduction a few years ago: only the truly self-absorbed individual would purchase a device that allows them to simultaneously hold their briefcase and sip expensive coffee while carrying on a telephone conversation. Everybody’s had that out-of-body experience where they realize the nearby solitary stranger is not a crazy person with imaginary friends, but rather speaking into the Bluetooth headset perched discreetly on his or her ear.

Hands-free legislation has its heart in the right place, but I am unconvinced that the means justify the end. Having a conversation and driving is first and foremost a dangerous combination, but these laws focus on your hands instead of your mouth. I still only use one hand while I am driving, but now I can drive, talk, and adjust the air conditioning at the same time. It is inattentiveness that causes traffic accidents, and no amount of legislation will force drivers to stay attentive.

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