The city of Austin for the past two years has been micromanaging my adult behavior.
OK, that sounded a little creepy.
I’ll clarify. The adult behavior I’m referring to is the use of a cellphone while driving. The City Council passed an ordinance in August 2014 making it illegal in Austin, with resulting fines and court costs as high as $219, to operate a moving motor vehicle or bicycle (yep, that too) while using a hand-held phone to talk, listen, type, read, watch a video or play a game.
Yes, playing a game. Apparently, some people think it would be OK to blast bad guys or capture Pokémon (is this still a thing?) while driving down U.S. 183’s elevated deck at 60 mph.
Anyway, the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, and Austin cops started issuing tickets a month later. Since then, through the end of January this year, police have caught people in that act 11,633 times. The dragnet, as it were, hauled in 4.7 percent more folks in the second 12 months than in the first 12 months, for whatever that’s worth. Such statistics could be affected by a lot of circumstances having little to do with the actual breadth of illegal phone use, including police attention to the matter, weather and whatever else might be going on in Austin year over year.
The point is, something like 1 percent of you have now been nailed for this transgression.
As I wrote in my column last week, a former Texas governor and soon-to-be U.S. secretary of energy thought such a law was not worth having because it would be “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults,” as Rick Perry wrote in his 2011 veto message. Perhaps someone should have micromanaged him when “Dancing with the Stars” called with an offer last year, but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, legislation to make phone use illegal behind the wheel in Texas has not made it that close to becoming a statute again. Bills to do that, once again carried by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are pending in the Legislature. The opponents, most prominently a “freedom caucus” of Republican senators who agree with Perry’s take on the subject (and who foiled the Craddick-Zaffirini effort on a similar bill in 2015), are the main obstacle to passage.
To give Perry and the opponents their due, yes, laws against phone use while driving do in fact micromanage behavior, as I’ll get to below. Of course, as so many have pointed out before, so do existing laws against drug and alcohol use, laws requiring seat belt use in cars, requirements for driver’s licenses and car registration, and, well, pretty much every criminal statute you could name.
The real questions are: Is the behavior worth controlling, and can such a law exert meaningful control? At least to elected officials in the 46 states and 95 Texas cities that have passed such laws, the answers must have been yes. Although the precise numbers of deaths and injuries caused by phone use behind the wheel are difficult to ascertain, police are all but unanimous in saying that the statistics are significant and sobering.
At the gathering of advocates for phoning-while-driving bans that I wrote about last week, police said that between 10 and 20 percent of the more than 3,700 deaths on Texas roads last year were caused by distracted driving. Usually, that means someone was looking at a phone instead of the road for long enough to lose control or fail to react to a threat.
But can a mere law make a difference? Based on the Ben Wear Focus Group of One, well, yeah.
Like approximately 104 percent of people out there, I believe I am a very skilled driver. The primary evidence supporting this view is that I have been doing it for 48 years and, not to be flippant on something this important, have never had a fatal accident. Or any accident for many, many years.
No, wait, there was that time in 2011 when I backed out of a parking space and scraped the car to my left. But, hey, he was parked at a weird angle. And, yes, later that same year I parked on a hill and returned to the car a couple of hours later to find it nose-to-dented-tail with the sedan parked in front of it. Just as the owner of that car arrived as well. Sure, I hadn’t set the parking brake, but I never do, and it always worked before …
Which is the point. A record of success on the road, or the lack of catastrophic failure, is not definitive proof of infallibility.
When I was much younger, and bored on long, solo car trips on lightly trafficked highways, a couple of times I experimented with closing my eyes for a few seconds while driving. I really did this. The point was to see how long I could go before fear (and good sense) made me open my eyes again. Kept them closed maybe 3 to 5 seconds, at most, on a straightaway. Dumb, yes, and pointless and dangerous.
But that’s essentially what you do when you look down at the phone. No, that’s what I do when I look down at the phone, because I certainly have done it. Within the past week.
But I don’t do it nearly as much as I did a decade or so ago. And since the Austin law went into effect two years ago, I’ve been even less likely to look at the phone while the car is moving.
A handful of times, because of user error, I ended up answering the phone without the Bluetooth hands-free feature kicking in. I hustled the people off the phone in a few seconds.
Why the change? Because I don’t want to pay a $200 ticket, primarily. But also because that Austin law is a loud statement by people I helped elect (or voted against, but you see the point) that using a phone while driving is a dangerous and unacceptable activity. And that matters to my (adult) behavior.
Yes, over the years, I’ve used a phone while driving many times, even at high speed back in the day. And nothing bad happened. Just like I’ve run a few red lights (by mistake), exceeded the speed limit many times and made an illegal U-turn now and then, and remained unscathed. As have all of you. We’ve done so, by and large, without getting a traffic ticket because there are only so many police officers to go around.
And a phoning-while-driving ban, as the opponents say, is very hard to enforce.
But driving, especially driving in ways that increase the danger, is a numbers game. Put a million texting monkeys (or human Texans) behind the wheel and have each one drive a million miles, and bad things will occur.
Common sense, not just my experience, suggests that a texting ban is likely to cut down on that particular monkey business.