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Allan Powell: A larger view of 'good laws'

February 24, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

In his column, “Do We Want Good Laws or Laws That Seem Good?” (Jan. 25), Tom Firey writes, “Regardless of the reason, the empirical evidence indicates that, at best, cellphone bans do not improve roadway safety and, at worst, they produce more accidents. Policy makers who want to help the public should oppose the laws and work to repeal ones already in place.” Since this line of thought seemed counterintuitive (and indeed dangerous), I called several officials in law enforcement to get their reactions to the claim.

They called attention to the difficulty of enforcing laws on cellphone use while driving because of the difficulty of being certain in observing drivers going in different directions at high rates of speed. Also, those cited correctly could still deny the accuracy of the arresting officer. Nonetheless, these officers were of the opinion that these bans on cellphone use while driving should be retained and enforced.

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Surely it is not unreasonable to ask why Firey would try to make such an argument after opening his case with an account of the death of a 19-year-old in Missouri in 2010. It is true that Missouri had a ban and that it did not deter this young man from texting, and we do not know how many young people were deterred from texting because they chose to obey the law. If that young man had obeyed the law and not been killed, we must declare that the law was of value.

Law serves other purposes than deterrence. A law also establishes a minimal standard that allows society, through courts, judges and juries, to determine liability and reparation for damages. “Thou shalt not kill,” asserted to be from the highest source of power known to man, has not been able to deter some from committing murder. Would we be foolish enough to repeal that rule because we still have killers?

There is a particular reason why we should take the time and effort to challenge the logic of the argument that the power of deterrence has not been proved. We are living in an era in which conservative politicians are in harmony in opposition to very worthy regulations. They seldom or never specify which regulations they want to repeal because they have a hunch that deregulation is a crowd pleaser and they want crowd behavior.

Nothing contributed more to the massive collapse of our banking system and the consequent injuries to so many people as the deregulation of our banks. Read any history of the creation of any one of our regulatory agencies and you will find a determined effort to stop or weaken every one. We have had laws to protect the health and safety of miners from poisonous and explosive gases in mines. These laws are still opposed and we still witness horrible disasters because of violations. We would be sorely mistaken if we succumb to the siren song of deregulation for the sheer sake of deregulation.

There is a special reason why we, in Maryland, should take a grain of salt with the recommendation to repeal our ban on cellphones while driving. Geography and a youth culture, which confers high status on expensive toys, contribute to fatal distractions on steep and winding roads. This goes for congestion also. This mix gives room for little error without a harsh penalty.

Firey has violated one of the basic laws of logic in his writing — the principle of noncontradiction. Using, for support of his thinking, a study of simulation driving and cellphone distraction, he writes “… both handheld and hands-free phone use increase the risk of accident to roughly the same level as drunk driving.” He then dismisses these studies because the “results do not translate neatly to the real world.”

Why have these simulation studies if they are not useful? If the study shows an accident rate “roughly the same as drunk driving” it is a red flag to be taken seriously.

Safety laws might not work perfectly at their first writing. Further, they are not purified and sanctified as though made in a vacuum. One person’s law is another person’s nightmare. One person hires a lobbyist to ensure the passage of a law; another person hires a lobbyist to influence a halt to its passage. In the end, we hope society is the beneficiary of this clash of ideas. I am with those who suppose that these bans are better than their absence.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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