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Anti-distracted driving laws leave much to be desired

New York laws prohibit not just texting behind the wheel, but all handheld cellphone use while driving. The majority of states have banned texting, but New York is among only about a dozen states to also ban handheld cellphone use.

While such laws are necessary, they seem to be far short of comprehensive. After all, there are many other common behaviors that can be distracting behind the wheel and can increase the risk of a car accident. Yet many of these behaviors remain legal and socially acceptable. For instance, when was the last time you ate your dinner while simultaneously trying to steer a two-ton piece of machinery?

According to a 2012 study, eating while driving can slow driver response times by up to 44 percent. There is scientific evidence that this behavior can be dangerous. So why hasn’t eating behind the wheel been outlawed?

A practical argument against banning such behaviors is that we generally can’€™t legislate common sense. Any law that specifically lists what drivers can and cannot do is likely to be prohibitively long and difficult to enforce.

On the other hand, laws that are worded vaguely can also be problematic. As an example, a driver in Georgia was recently cited for trying to eat a hamburger while driving – citation he plans to contest in court. While eating is not specifically banned, the wording of the statute could be interpreted in such a way as to prohibit eating while driving.

The statute reads: “€œA driver shall exercise due care in operating a motor vehicle on the highways of this state and shall not engage in any actions which shall distract such driver from the safe operation of such vehicle.”

Generally speaking, laws that are too specific can lead to creative loopholes while laws that are too vague can lead to police overreach. Where should we draw the line when it comes to distracted driving?

Source: The New York Times, “€œA Cheeseburger, a Suburban Traffic Stop and a Ticket for Eating While Driving,”€ Alan Blinder, Jan. 20, 2015

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