Driving Distractions

Both Hands on the Wheel Please

During a recent drive through Alberta, Canada I was distracted by the ubiquitous highway regulatory signs warning, “DISTRACTED DRIVING LAW IN EFFECT”.

On long drives (mine was 12 hours) one has opportunity to think about many things, although thinking and driving could be distracting—and possibly against Alberta law.

I thought about the law itself. What does it really mean, and how will alleged breaches be prosecuted? The authorities have posted a FAQ page about the law which is both helpful and revealing. Perniciously enough, police officers are allowed considerable discretion in writing tickets for “distracted driving”. So, for example, one can be charged for holding a cell-phone, even if it is turned off.

However, a driver may take a sip of hot coffee or maybe, smoke a cigarette. It is unclear whether the latter distraction would be allowed, since evidently no public official anywhere wants to be on record as condoning the act of smoking.Nevertheless, the unintended consequences to which spilled, scalding hot coffee or errant sparks and ashes may lead are considered less significant than holding an inoperative cell-phone.

Distractions come in many forms. Sometimes, they are staged to bolster a case for banning some activity. In one instance, walking cell-phone users were so engrossed that they did not notice a clown nearby, riding a unicycle. From such staged research as this has come the justification for decrees directed against certain targets, such as cell-phone users.

There will be unintended consequences to this distracted driving law and its variants across numerous jurisdictions. Rationalizations in favour of it leave one wondering. In Alberta, a fine of $172 accompanies a charge of distracted driving and this is viewed as an adequate deterrent, described as complementary to existing legislation. Current laws permit charges for driving without due care and attention, allowing fines of over $400 and 6 driver demerit points, a significant levy where the maximum for a single charge is 7 points.

It is difficult not to be cynical about the new law in the wake of the foregoing logic; many have stated that it has been created for the purpose of raising money through fines. Its stated objective is aimed at changing behaviour.

Changing behaviours cannot be accomplished by decree; totalitarian states continue trying, with predictably bad results. Behavioural changes in a culture occur spontaneously over time through dissemination of information and the prosecution of legitimate law, where damages have occurred and the persons at fault bear the costs of the consequences of their actions. Human nature and living in societies over time gave rise to insurance, through which the risks of everyday life are mitigated by practical individuals. It is an example of progress in freer civilizations.

Suffering the consequences of one’s own actions, through the grace of reality rather than the capriciousness of bureaucrats, is a learning lesson. A woman who suffered unintended consequences of texting while shopping (tripping and falling into a fountain) makes this point rather convincingly.

©Copyright 2012 Edward Podritske


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