By Scott Tibbs, December 23, 2008
As a general rule, I do not like it when government passes a law that restricts what private citizens can do. We already have too much government in our lives and the direction we should be moving is less government, not more. However, the primary function of civil authority is to make it illegal for one person to harm another. This includes reckless behavior that unnecessarily puts other people at risk of harm, such as drunk driving.
On December 19, the Monroe County Commissioners approved a ban on text messaging while driving. (See articles here and here.) Composing a text message distracts the driver of a vehicle and significantly increases the risk of an accident. Since you have to look at the phone to type, it is worse than talking on a cell phone while driving. While it should be common sense to avoid sending a text message until you are safely at rest, too many people are sorely lacking in common sense.
This isn't to say the law doesn't have problems. First, if the Commissioners are serious about deterring text messaging while driving, a $25 fine is too low. Given the increased risk of an accident presented by texting, the fine should be $100 (or more) with second and third offenses increasing the penalty. A $25 fine is not going to provide much of a deterrent, but if someone knows he will have to pay four (or ten) times that amount, he will be much less likely to violate the ordinance, even with the knowledge that enforcement will not be a high priority.
There has been a lot of chatter about how the text message ordinance is unenforceable. I do not think that is a terribly impressive argument. If a law needs to be implemented, difficulty of enforcement should not necessarily be the primary obstacle to passing it. I am more concerned when government passes a law for the sole purpose of "educating" people. Commissioner Iris Kiesling told the Herald-Times "our main message is to get people to realize this isn't a good thing to do." Kiesling also voted for a bike helmet ordinance while on the Bloomington City Council in 1996. The ordinance was passed with specific instructions from the City Council that it not be enforced.
One benefit of the law is to change behavior through education. However, I believe it reduces respect for the rule of law to pass a law that you know will not be enforced. I doubt that many people who text while driving will be convinced simply because the County Commissioners made a statement. If the Commissioners are serious about the text messaging ordinance and serious about the issue overall, they should treat it with the seriousness it deserves by giving the ordinance some teeth.