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Law or no law, safe driving needs to be a high priority [Editorial]

Laws and LegislationHighway and Road DisastersTransportation DisastersJustice SystemRadio IndustryMaryland General Assembly

Among the many laws that went into effect Tuesday was one making more strict a prohibition against the use of hand held cell phones by people who are driving.

Though texting while driving and using a hand held cell phone while driving already had been declared illegal, under the law that went into effect Tuesday, police no longer have to have another reason to pull over a driver.

The law is especially poignant for the Hurd family, of Abingdon. Heather Hurd was killed in 2009 in Florida by a truck driven by someone who was distracted while texting. Since then, prohibitions against texting while driving and other uses of mobile communications devices have been enacted across the country, many bearing the name Heather's Law.

"Our pain is something that remains the same," Russell Hurd, Heather Hurd's father, said last week for an article on the new law going into effect.

"But no matter what we do, if you can reach at least one family, then that's enough."

An unfortunate reality, however, is that highway safety in general isn't held in high regard, so it remains to be seen what effect, if any, having stricter driving safety laws on the books will have.

Moreover, there's a sentiment expressed by some in positions of responsibility in the government that driving safety laws are intrusive.

In commenting on the cell phone law going into effect, Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who represents southern and eastern Harford in the Maryland General Assembly, said: "Next they'll be telling us we can't listen to the radio or eat."

Sen. Jacob's point is well taken. Laws can be intrusive, and it is certainly true that eating, drinking a soda or coffee or changing the radio station can be every bit as distracting as talking on a hand held cell phone. Why outlaw one and not the other? Why not leave it to drivers to determine if they're able to drive and hold a phone?

Similarly, Del. Susan McComas, who represents Bel Air in the state legislature, expressed general support for safe driving, but reiterated that she voted against the law that went into effect this week, in part, on the grounds that it has the potential to increase law enforcement costs.

The legislators make points that have an element of reason associated with them, but historically personal liberties in this country limit out when they start to impose on someone else's personal liberties. With regard to driving safety, risky behavior on the part of one person can have a deadly result for someone else, even as the person engaged in the risky behavior is unharmed. That's why there are traffic laws, and that's why as new technologies come into being, traffic laws need to be updated.

For years, it was common to point out that alcohol affects different people in different ways, so setting limits on blood alcohol levels wasn't necessarily a fair measure of the degree to which a driver is impaired. The problem then becomes figuring out what measure to use to determine whether a person is too affected by alcohol to drive. It turns out to be much more practical to set a relatively low blood alcohol content to promote the greater good of keeping people impaired by alcohol off the roads.

Similarly, the concerns of Del. McComas, Sen. Jacobs and others concerned about personal liberties notwithstanding, the dangers of unsafe driving are all too easy to quantify. Traffic accidents happen every day in Harford County and deadly traffic accidents are far too common, indicating that personal liberties of those behind the wheel continue to bite into the right of everyone else to use public roadways without fear of being injured or killed.

As it turns out, drinking and driving laws and enforcement of those laws was only part of the solution to the substantial problem drinking and driving deaths had become in the 1970s. Though impaired driving remains a problem, generally speaking, there's a level of social deterrent that has come into play. It just isn't as acceptable in polite company as it once was.

Unfortunately, as drinking and driving has decreased as a cause of traffic accidents, it has been replaced by distracted driving, and cell phone use is as distracting as it gets, certainly more so than eating, drinking soda, coffee or changing the radio station.

It remains to be seen if the crackdown on cell phone use behind the wheel allowed under the new law will have a big effect, but the reality is it probably won't have a big effect by itself. Only when, as a society, we are loathe to not only to hold a cell phone while behind the wheel, but also or talk with someone behind the wheel who is holding a phone, is there likely to be a big effect.

Fortunately, unlike drinking and driving, there is a technological solution to the problem that could allow drivers to safely talk on the phone, namely hands free devices. It may well come to pass that the cell phone laws on the books end up becoming entirely unnecessary as hands free phones come into more common use.

Meanwhile, while it's fine to continue the discussion of the degree to which traffic enforcement infringes on personal liberties, it behooves us all to comply with traffic laws that are on the books.

More importantly, we all would do well to make safe driving a higher priority than getting to our destinations as quickly as possible.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Laws and LegislationHighway and Road DisastersTransportation DisastersJustice SystemRadio IndustryMaryland General Assembly
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