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October 23, 2008

susan savage gets something right: banning DWT

Filed under: Schenectady Synecdoche — David Giacalone @ 6:38 pm

.. We’ve probably spent more than enough time on Wendy Savage today. In contrast to all that good press, there’s another Ms. Savage who’s gotten nothing but bad reviews here at f/k/a the past couple of years (see here, and there): She’s Susan E. Savage, the Chair of the Schenectady County Legislature. But, it had to happen: Chairwoman Savage has proposed a local law that actually makes good sense. Indeed, we supported just such a law for the entire State about 5 weeks ago here at f/k/a.

To wit: If Susan Savage gets her way, “Texting while driving could soon be banned in Schenectady County” (CBS 6 News, October 23, 2008).

update (December 10, 2008): The County Legislature passed the law yesterday, by an 11 – 2 vote.  Only Republicans Joseph Suhrada and Jim Buhrmaster opposed it.  See “Law forbids texting while driving in Schenectady County: Violators could face fine of $150″ (Dec. 10, 2008). According to the Gazette: “Majority Leader Gary Hughes, D-Schenectady, said many state laws, like the helmet law and the cellphone law, began as local measures. ‘We are raising awareness of a particular issue, and until the state acts, we should,’ he said.”

This afternoon, Chairwoman Savage introduced a local law to ban what we call DWT — driving while texting. (Click here to read the full press release as a PDF file; also, “Schenectady County proposing texting ban while driving“, Albany Times Union, October 23, 2008 ) In her press release, Chairwoman Savage had some important things to say:

“This is an important public safety issue. Research has shown the dangers of driver distractions so it is important that we propose legislation that will prevent a deadly accident before it happens.

“I also hope this will raise awareness to this dangerous and deadly behavior. Before the New York State seatbelt law, most drivers knew it was a good idea to wear one, but only 17% of drivers were motivated to change their old habits. Now, 89% of drivers in New York State wear their seatbelts.”

Violators would incur a $150 fine. As the Times Union noted, “The issue took on prominence when five high school girls died in a fiery accident south of Rochester in 2007. Cell phone records showed someone was texting on the driver’s cell phone when the girls’ SUV passed a car and crashed into a tractor trailer.” And,

“By considering this legislation, Schenectady County says it would join Rochester’s Monroe County in proposing a ban. Westchester and Suffolk counties have already passed similar bans. Alaska, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Washington State have also passed state-wide bans.”

As we opined on September 18th, The Schenectady Gazette got it right on banning driving while texting in its editorial “Textbook case of a law that shouldn’t be necessary, but is” (September 15, 2008):

“And [the DWT law] should be enforced more rigorously than the oft-ignored handheld cellphone ban. Perhaps if police had done a better job with that one, motorists wouldn’t be so brazen about engaging in far-more-distracting text messaging.”

The f/k/a Gang hopes the ban on texting while driving passes — but would how to have a statewide ban soon. If we get really lucky, Susan Savage may realize that her arguments about driving distractions apply equally to DWP: driving while phoning. Unfortunately, the State has pre-empted local jurisdictions with ineffective, counterproductive and under-enforced laws that only ban hand-held cellphones, while permitting drivers to use the equally distracting hands-free version. It would be great, threfore, if Ms. Savage got other local leaders across the state to lobby the Legislature and Governor David Paterson to ban all forms of phoning while driving. If, as a busy politician and mother, she currently engages in that reckless behavior behind the wheel, publicly giving it up would make Susan Savage an excellent role model.

update (Oct. 24, 2008): A few of our neighbors at the Rotterdam [NY] internet forum are less than enthusiastic about the texting ban. My quick response:

  • “nannyism” is government making you do something that is good for you, it is not banning activity that is dangerous to other people and their property;
  • if this is a good law, it does not serve the public well to be fretting, as Republican legislator Joe Suhrada does in today’s Gazette, that Susan Savage is engaging in a distracting sideshow to avoid attention on the new “wallet-busting budget.” If our Legislators aren’t capable of reviewing a budget while spending a small amount of time on this issue (and maybe a few others), we need to elect more capable people. And, if politicians can’t time activity to make themselves look good, Joe Suhrada might have to go out of business.
  • as noted above, the hand-held cellphone law has not deterred the practice of DWP because it has not been adequately enforced (with the law flaunted everywhere openly); effective enforcement and high-profile publicity are needed to make this work; the fact that enforcement will raise money is a plus, not a reason to oppose the law;
  • those who argue “we can’t cure stupid” might just as well say “we can’t cure greed or anger” and oppose laws against fraud, robbery, murder, etc. The fact that so many of our younger citizens engage in this dangerous activity is a reason to act against it, not to give up and turn DWT into some kind of birthright.
  • It may be difficult to spot some of the texters, as Sheriff Harry Buffardi mentioned to the Gazette, but much of it is visible and records of usage are available from the service providers if a dispute arises.

.. let’s ban driving while texting! . .


. . . and all phoning while driving! . . .


  1. Leviathan Seeks To Squash Texting While Driving

    By Aaron David Ward

    Once again New York State has lived up to its moniker The Empire State. Beginning March 1, 2009, Schenectady County will join Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau counties in banning cell phone text messaging while driving. This after five high school girls died in a fiery accident south of Rochester last year. The accident occurred in Monroe County and it too is considering a ban even though it’s never been determined who in the car was texting at the time of the crash.

    You have to admire lawmakers’ craftiness. They know how to expand state power, quash liberty, and make money on a tragedy. In Schenectady County, each ticket would cost each violator $150, which apparently is the going rate for the loss of liberty.

    While I expect lawmakers to ramrod legislation down the throats of New York State residents, a significant number of members of the general public support the ban, which surprises me. People are so distraught over the possibility of additional accidents involving texting they are willing to trade freedom for “security” and “safety.”

    And yet one rarely hears calls for more parental and driver responsibility. I thought parents were responsible for teaching their children to drive and to avoid distractions in the car. And drivers make their own decisions about what is safe behavior. But if they fail to do so, have no fear, the state will legislate common sense. But when you try to educate people about the loss of individual liberty that each and every new law guarantees, you are quickly dismissed as being “insensitive” to victims and their families.

    The state uses this strategy to convince people to support these bans. It couches the argument in terms of sympathy or lack thereof for victims of accidents, crimes, and other misfortunes. It purposely places proponents of individual liberty and responsibility on the losing side of the “Mom and Apple Pie” argument.

    Meanwhile if you explain the real reason why rulers pass these bans — to make money on the tickets issued to offenders – you are either ignored or discounted or labeled “cynical, negative, and insensitive.” Given the current state of the economy, lawmakers are seeking every new kind of revenue possible under the sun instead of cutting programs and services, shrinking the size of government, and repealing legislation that robs citizens of their freedom.

    While listening to a recent talk radio program in my hometown area, I heard a caller who identified himself as a police officer, claim in most cases the police would simply ignore the ban on cell phone texting while driving because they are too busy dealing with other “crimes.” This was used as a defense of the ban. Never once did I hear the officer express concern about the loss of individual liberty that the ban represents.

    Another caller who said she had attended the funerals of three of the Rochester car crash victims said young people there said, “they’re ought to be a law banning cell phone texting while driving.” Do young people really believe that or were they backing a ban because they were understandably upset at the loss of life?

    It’s at these emotionally vulnerable times that Leviathan strikes. Lawmakers seek to pass legislation when people are the most distraught. And usually they can convince enough people that it’s a wonderful way to prevent future tragedies. The state counts on the fact that people are too upset to think clearly.

    If I were a parent whose child had died in terrible accident, I would be outraged if the state used the tragedy to pass a law that is ultimately designed to raise revenue for government. The loss of liberty of so many only serves to compound the loss of life for a few. Government, no matter how well intentioned, cannot legislate away death or decisions that may lead to death. It is impossible and yet Leviathan continues to try.

    Aaron David Ward is a professional stand up comedian and libertarian philosopher from upstate New York. Visit his website http://www.aarondavidward.com

    Comment by Aaron David Ward — December 10, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  2. Well, Aaron, Thank goodness you decided to be pithy today. I suppose you think you have the liberty to insert entire articles, with little promotional plugs, into my weblog. You don’t, but we allow some excesses here, in the name of public dialogue.

    I can think of no “liberty” of any significance that is being restrained by a law banning texting while driving. There is no activity that society should want to protect because of its value. We need to help all members of our society to understand that responsible driving requires a quantum of attention that cannot be sustained while attempting to perform e-communication.

    There are times when society needs to protect itself from irresponsible, dangerous activity, and laws are the best way to demonstrate the inappropriateness of the behavior — and doing so at an early stage, before it is enshrined as some sort of birthright by those among us who are oblivious of their responsibilities, makes good policy.

    Throwing around words like “liberty” and “Leviathan” as it they have some inherent definition and authority does very little to help intelligent discourse.

    Comment by David Giacalone — December 10, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  3. Well, David, Thank goodness you decided to use the word pithy as if it were derisive.

    If you can think of no “liberty” of any significance that is being restrained by a law banning texting while driving then perhaps you should think again.

    I recognize the thoughts of statist immediately when you say there is no activity that society should want to protect because of its value.

    “We” need to help all members of our society understand responsible driving requires a quantum of attention that cannot be sustained while attempting to perform e-communication?

    No, “we” don’t.

    Parents need to help their children understand responsible driving.

    And I hate to break it to you but there are a plethora of other activities in which drivers engage in that cause accidents, reading, looking for their lost homework, eating a bear claw, et al.

    If the state decides to ban all of those activities then we have given up all liberty in the name of safety.

    I don’t throw around words like “liberty” and “Leviathan” like they have some inherent definition.

    In fact, I use them precisely because of their inherent definitions.

    Your condescending tone and snarky attitude do nothing to help intelligent discourse.

    Comment by Aaron David Ward — December 22, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

  4. Aaron, Pithy is indeed good, but your original Comment was far from pithy (I was using irony — which I surely have the liberty to do here at my weblog in response to prolixity).

    Society has the right to protect itself from dangerous conduct by people whose parents didn’t do a successful job in teaching them how to act responsibly. And, we are more than capable of distinguishing between levels of danger and balancing the risks caused by particular conduct with any “liberty” that is the lost.

    Unless “liberty” means “doing everything I want the moment I want to do it,” I continue to believe that there is no important liberty interest lost by requiring individuals to postpone texting while they are driving.

    Your Slippery Slope and Straw-men absolutist arguments are not a helpful way to have intelligent discourse.

    Comment by David Giacalone — December 23, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  5. Ah, I recognize the absolutist argument of the consummate statist…society (read an overreaching government) has the “right” to protect itself from dangerous conduct by people who’s parents didn’t do a successful job in teaching them how to act responsibly.

    The government does not have the right to tell parents what they should and should not teach their children. When it does it supersedes the liberties and rights of the parents as well as the children by seeking to act as the Nanny.

    Freedom requires responsibility on the part of those who chose to exercise it.

    Many people are capable of texting and driving or smoking and driving or listening to the radio and driving safely without harming other drivers and without government banning them from doing it for their “own good.”

    Your idea that a slipperly slope argument is inherently intellectually dishonest is both false and hackneyed.

    Comment by Aaron David Ward — January 9, 2009 @ 8:11 am

  6. Arron is right David. This country is about self-determination and the right to be free. Text-messaging bans lead to the abuse of arbitrary power. You look down for a second and all of a sudden you get pulled over, asked all kinds of personal questions, have your personal phone gone through, get intimidated, and possibly fined $150 so the state can fund its revenue addictions on a suspicion? What a joke. You like this because you probably could care less about TMWD but I am quite sure you have engaged in other equally distracting behaviors. I wish you could live in a place where the cannon of big government was turned on you in the interests of “public safety.”

    As Franklin said “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” The government continues to grow on every level burying future generations in debt and tyranny and you say “What’s the big deal?” Ha ha.

    Comment by James McGaughan — February 10, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

  7. James, I’m not going to try to change your mind. To me, however, you cheapen the notion of “liberty” when you insist upon the right not only to drive and not only to engage in text messaging, but to do both simultaneously, no matter how much danger you cause for others.

    It is quite difficult to finds things as distracting as TMDW to do while driving. If I’ve done similarly-distracting things while driving, I say (1) they surely were for only a moment and rare, not for the duration and with the frequency to text messaging. And, (2) if I create a hazard while driving, I should be ticketed.

    Comment by David Giacalone — February 10, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  8. Neither the notion of liberty nor liberty itself are cheapened when you insist that individuals have a right to drive and to text if they wish.

    If the driver who is texting causes an accident that results in an injury or death of someone else then the driver will be held responsible.

    Liberty is the freedom to do as one chooses without infringing on the private property rights of other individuals or harming other individuals.

    To ban cell phone texting while driving because it might cause an accident is the result of an overzealous government bent on making money from yet another banned activity.

    Government cares not one wit about the safety of drivers but it does care about revenue generated by drivers who are ticketed.

    The reason why advocates of liberty always cite the so-called “slippery slope” arguments is precisely because government operates on a slippery slope.

    Since the inception of the country government has sought to control the behavior of every citizen all in the name of the “public good.”

    If and I use the word “if” cell phone texting is really such a hazard to other drivers, there is a much better way to end the practice without government intervention.

    Citizens could voluntarily create an association focused on educating drivers about the dangers of cell phone texting while driving.

    Or organizations that already exist like Triple-A could voluntarily make presentations at schools and elsewhere in which they educate drivers about the dangers of cell phone texting.

    When ordinary citizens voluntarily work together to help curtail a behavior they see as dangerous, the chances of the behavior changing increase a thousandfold.

    Take a look at what happened when that airplane made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York City a short while ago.

    The very first responders on the scene were private citizens using their privately-owned boats. There was no coordinated effort by government to send out private individuals to rescue the passengers aboard the aircraft. Individual citizens saw a need and acted on their own accord without the heavy hand of government directing them to do so.

    Let the market, i.e. individuals learn to take responsibilty for themselves and in so doing they will make decisions for themselves on an individual basis that ultimately benefit society collectively.

    When statists espouse the use of the heavy hand of government to right perceived wrongs, inevitably, the wrongs become more frequent and more brazen.

    Individual parents, drivers, cell phone users, etc have an inherent desire to arrive at their destinations safely.

    When they voluntarily work together to avoid potential problems like cell phone texting, the problem lessens without the need for the Nanny state to ban the “dangerous” activity.

    Comment by Aaron David Ward — February 11, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

  9. Aaron, Don’t you’ve taken up more than enough pixels here?

    Comment by david giacalone — February 11, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

  10. David,

    You are set on the public good idea. I can assure you all of the worst tyrannies that have ever existed were in that name and were done incrementally. I will leave the text of a speech that I wrote and was delivered (by my sister as I had a graduate class) recently in response to this ban. My only request is that you continue to leave your mind open to change. I have developed a political philosophy over several years and many books from all perspectives. Changing my mind about many things. I wish you the best as this will be my last post here:

    Tonight, I rise to speak out against the recently passed Local Law No. 06-2008, a prohibition on text messaging while driving. This is not a condemnation of any one person, but of a way of thinking.
    This country was founded on the principles of liberty, freedom, self-determination, and a healthy fear of government. These revolutionaries were keenly aware of the damage that governments had done in the name of the “public good” for thousands of years. Laws and government intervention were meant only for times of extraordinary need for they result in a surrender of our most precious commodity, liberty.
    Is there an epidemic of text-messaging carnage that is filling our hospitals and morgues? Hardly. If we are going to ban text-messaging while driving; what about eating, putting on make-up, trying to get your kids in the backseat to behave, grabbing a tissue, changing the radio station, or looking at something other than the road? Where does it end? Do we really want to empower police officers to be able to pull us over, ask us all kinds of personal and potentially inappropriate questions, go through our phones, and generally trample our privacy based on a suspicion of sending a text message? Because we looked down a couple of times? This seems absurd.
    Some will say there is a risk to text-messaging while driving. I can assure you there is far greater risk in governments turning into legislation mills. Risk is omnipresent for anything that we do in different gradations. Happiness cannot exist in a place with no risk. Show me a place that has no risk, and I will show you hell.
    It seems to me we are losing far more than we gain. And for what, so someone can attach their name to legislation? We continue to pass scores of new laws everyday at the town, county, state, and federal level. The number of repeals in comparison is infinitesimal. Where does it end for us? There is a reason why the average age of a republic is only 200 years.
    Many will see this as a disproportionate response to something as insignificant as a text-messaging prohibition while driving. The problem here is that although a case can be made these things are inconsequential by themselves, in aggregate they are of great consequence. Loss of autonomy and liberty with a heightened threat of arbitrary power being abused is defiantly compelling to me.
    I ask this body to show the resolve to repeal this legislation. Don’t facilitate tyranny, do your part to liberalize our society and safeguard against despotism. A liberal society is what allowed us to go from a fledgling group of colonies to the world’s foremost power in about 100 years. Never in recorded history had a people enjoyed more freedom and prosperity than at the dawn of this country. The road to a free, open, prosperous and just society for future generations to enjoy is not through knee-jerk, petty legislation produced to enhance some legislator’s resume and reduce everyone else’s rights. I think, when carefully considered, the society that most of us hope to create and preserve is one in which arbitrary, ridiculous text-messaging bans don’t exist. Thank you.

    Comment by jamesmcgaughan — February 17, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  11. James, You are absolutely wrong that “all of the worst tyrannies that have ever existed were in [the name of the public good] and were done incrementally.” The worse tyrannies in history started off as the worse tyrannies — they immediately took away significant rights that are the bedrock of a civil society; and they usually started with bloodbaths.

    There are many kinds of risk and jumbling them all together is not the way to persuade a thinking audience. We have a become a society where far too many people believe they have the right to significantly increase the risk of physical injury to others to satisfy some petty personal whimsy. That is not the kind of society in which I want to live. Your knee-jerk opposition to laws that place minor restrictions on when people can engage in a dangerous activity suggests a lack of respect for other human beings that is at the root of much of what is wrong with our society.

    Comment by David Giacalone — February 17, 2009 @ 11:13 am

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