When the California Senate passed a law banning cell phone use while driving, citizens all over the state agreed that this was a sensible and well-reasoned law — that no one would ever, ever follow.
It’s like a law that forbids people from making bad eating choices. It’s good for us! It’s better for the planet! People will break it every day!
So now, a year after it was made illegal to operate a handheld device while driving, people are still only marginally respectful of the law. Or at least, they find it easy to justify breaking it.
There are a myriad of reasons. First, it’s rather difficult to enforce. Talking on your cell phone, unlike speeding, is a subtle breach of conduct and not necessarily obvious to other drivers. Sure, you could be talking on your cell phone, but maybe you are just scratching your neck for a really long time. Or maybe you just like to feel the smooth surface of the phone against your ear.
Another big problem facing the cell phone law is that many hands-free devices, which enable drivers to talk on the phone while driving legally, are obnoxious. Sure, now they’re mandatory accessories if you have a car and a cell phone and you want to use them at the same time.
But there was a time when Bluetooth headsets were used exclusively by jerks in expensive cars shouting out orders to their brokers while simultaneously ordering nonfat soy lattés. It’s not the ’90s any more, but it’s still hard to separate that image from the funny little earpieces we’re all supposed to have.
Perhaps most challenging for the cell phone law is that old habits die hard. Cell phones were such a novel concept when they emerged, no one thought to ban them while driving at first. The government gave drivers a little taste of forbidden fruit, and then took it away — but not until everyone got used to it.
(Imagine if marijuana had once been legal — making it illegal would have been like Prohibition all over again.)
Conscientious drivers who religiously use their hands-free headsets might disagree, but the law that talking on the phone while driving is more difficult to follow, than, say, the one that bans oral sex while driving.
Even the governor’s wife is having trouble following the law. Pictures surfaced Tuesday of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, driving while talking on her cell phone.
There are two pictures from two different days. The fine for the first violation is $20, and the second violation is $50 — but Shriver was only caught by TMZ reporters, not the police.
Perhaps more relevant though is the scandal that should ensue. As the governor’s wife, doesn’t she have a special obligation to be an example for the rest of us?
But if we start looking on our government leaders to be paragons of law-abiding virtue, then we are looking in the wrong place.
The last thing anyone should do is take marital advice from, say, former Gov. Elliot Spitzer. Or ethics lessons from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The list goes on.
And besides, maybe Maria wasn’t talking on the phone at all. She might just like the feel of the smooth surface against her ear.
Laura Reeve is a senior majoring in public relations. Her column, “Folk Laur,” runs Wednesdays. For more “Folk Laur,” check out her blog at dailytrojan.com.