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Quigley '10: It's my car and I'll text if I want to

On several occasions this past summer, as I was making the trip from my internship office in Princeton to my family's house in Rhode Island, pride for my state consumed me. I was not sure about the laws in New Jersey or New York, but I was certain that Connecticut had made texting while driving illegal, and that my state had not.

And as Connecticut was the longest part of the trip, I had much time to consider what I was being forced not to do, as well as how the stench of unadulterated state power made me feel.

Crushed, I now write that my state has joined the ranks of the authoritarian by also prohibiting the use of a data-transmission device (e.g., a cellular phone) for the sending, reading or writing of text messages while driving. Rhode Island has been a pretty sad place for liberty for generations, but still, it should bring a tear every time that the barbarians in the General Assembly further empower the avaricious badges with more ways to pull over drivers (especially the young).

There are literally so many reasons to oppose this sort of slavish legislation that I can only touch upon a few.

First, and perhaps most relevant for a legislative body that should be concerned with precedent and historical liberties, this law seems to violate the common-law right to travel — a right jealously guarded by the Anglo-Saxons even before the Magna Carta.

Time and time again, the English courts before our rebellion and the American courts after it affirmed the right to travel as so fundamental that it could only be abridged for a free man on the basis of its presenting a direct threat to public health, safety or morals. Even then, there had to be a specific reason, with specific facts supporting it, and the behavior in question had to lead directly to the undesirable harm.

I repeat: The behavior in question had to lead directly to harm. The mere possibility of harm is not enough. Otherwise, should we not outlaw driving while drowsy, while talking, while hung over or, if relying on evidence about spatial abilities, while female? If the state should police our preferences regarding how others exercise their right to travel, I see no valid reason not to do so.

To be fair, the legislators, besides relying on un-empirical, anecdotal evidence, did invoke a study from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which reported that "2,600 people are killed each year from driver distraction incidents stemming from cell phone use." However, legally, this completely misses the point.

A person who crashes a car because he was distracted by texting — which is not most, considering the study said that 23 percent of drivers, 50 percent of those aged 16-29, engage in this habit — should be, and is under existing law, culpable for the crash.

Whatever the driver was doing or whoever the driver is, what matters is that he crashed a car. All that new legislation does is manufacture a crisis and inject the law into one more aspect of life.

Am I the only one who smells a rat, in the form of a real-world Minority Report? The use of the state's police powers should not be exercised unless a direct harm has already taken place, or is imminent from the very nature of a given act.

Second, this sort of legislation further erodes the proper understanding of the common law principle that a man's home, or car, is his castle. That is, it perverts a proper understanding of what constitutes the private sphere.

That principle, of course, is routinely violated elsewhere — we need only look to mandatory seat-belt laws and the shockingly inane BAC level of .08. Yet if we are to defend seriously, as opposed to fashionably, the right of property, we must also defend the right to use that property in ways we may find unwise.

We used to believe that property was sacred, that a man could be free to live as he saw fit, so long as his actions did not directly harm another or constitute a direct threat to public health, safety or morals. But I guess the pursuit of utopia through legislation has made liberal life, with people who make choices different from our own, a thing of the past. People, after all, are unpredictable; legislated force is not.

Lastly, a person's character and sturdiness are debauched when the state takes on such an intrusive, salvific role. Whether the debate concerns health care, old-age "insurance," temperate living or safety on the roads, the modern solution is tragically to legislate and coerce.

If you think that texting while driving is destructive or at least fraught with undue peril, then persuade, convince, urge. But do not prostitute out your responsibility to our pathetic political class and its tax-gobbling boots on the ground.

You have no right to be made safe, or to force others to comply with the erratic demands arising from your fears. So if you insist on being a child, please do it privately.
 

Sean Quigley '10 swears that he is not a libertarian. He can be reached at sean.b.quigley-at-gmail.com. 

 




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