Cell Phones

An Act of Heroism or A Petty Crime?

Last week Kevin Williamson did something I have often dreamed of doing, although to people talking or texting on cell phones while driving and not in a movie theater.

The show was Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was quite good and which I recommend. The audience, on the other hand, was horrible — talking, using their phones, and making a general nuisance of themselves. It was bad enough that I seriously considered leaving during the intermission, something I’ve not done before. The main offenders were two parties of women of a certain age, the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels, and insufficient attention span for following a two-hour musical. But my date spoke with the theater management during the intermission, and they apologetically assured us that the situation would be remedied.

It was not. The lady seated to my immediate right (very close quarters on bench seating) was fairly insistent about using her phone. I asked her to turn it off. She answered: “So don’t look.” I asked her whether I had missed something during the very pointed announcements to please turn off your phones, perhaps a special exemption granted for her. She suggested that I should mind my own business.

So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.

The reaction has been fascinating. While a great many have applauded Williamson for his bit of cell phone vigilantism, others have been far less sympathetic and indeed think he should be brought up on charges. Personally, I called him a hero on facebook.

But is he really a hero? Technically this was destruction of personal property. While the woman was certainly rude, lack of social grace does not negate the right to property.

On one level, it’s difficult to disregard that Williamson did act in an almost (or maybe not even almost) illegal fashion, and he himself was guilty of causing a disturbance. At the same time, the absolute lack of proper etiquette is becoming a growing concern in modern society. My wife and I rarely attend movies largely due to the fact that we have small children and babysitting is expensive. Yet were it not for the children we still would likely have cut back on our movie-going as it had become something of a tedium. I vividly recall attending the third installment of the Pirates of Caribbean franchise. The sheer awfulness of the film was compounded by the sheer awfulness of the crowd attending, largely populated by shrieking girls gawking at Orlando Bloom. Cell phone abuse was hardly the biggest issue with this crowd.

All the same, the reason that so many view Williamsom with admiration is that he confronted rudeness head-on. Instead of bellyaching later in a blogpost about the obnoxious woman sitting next to him, he actually did something about it. Though the action itself is of dubious ethical value, it was an action, and in world of words any actions taken to tackle social problems seem much more meritorious.

There are obvious concerns with Williamson’s actions being replicated on a larger scale, so we should probably not completely encourage such behavior. That being said, I have a difficult time not applauding Williamson for doing what so many of us have yearned to do.

But Sometimes We Do Need a Nanny

William Teach is none too happy about the NSTB’s desire to ban cellphones from the roads:

(Washington Post) The National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that all states and the District ban cellphone use behind the wheel, becoming the first federal agency to call for an outright prohibition on telephone conversations while driving.

Distracted driving, some of it due to cellphone use, contributed to an estimated 3,092 deaths in highway crashes last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So, only some of the deaths can be attributed to distracted driving. We should ban looking at scenery, since that is dangerous. And passengers. Listening to the radio. Drinking coffee. Eating. Brushing hair. Putting on makeup. Those mirrors that allow parents to look in the back. Kids. Oh, and CAFE standards, which increase the risk of death on the road.

I’m usually sympathetic to concerns about government intrusion, but this is one of those areas where government does have same rationale for interference.  The libertarian argument against government interference in our personal affairs usually comes down to opposing efforts to regulate actions that do not harm others.  But in the case of distracted driving one’s actions do in fact affect others.  People generally don’t have accidents only with themselves.  Oh, sure, people run off the road and slam into trees, but more often they slam into other, innocent drivers.  So actions which do put other people’s lives at risk merit some kind of regulation, right?

There are a couple of practical objections to the ban.  First of all, is this really worthy of federal oversight?  One can perhaps argue that interstates are subject to the commerce clause, but this ban would apply to non-interstate driving.  Allowing the federal government to impose a mandate on the states through the threat of withholding highway funds is a pretty nasty trick and I think a clear example of overreach.

Even looking at it as a state issue this proposal poses concerns.  Last night I heard some commentators actually suggest that cell phones be disabled as soon as the car starts.  Aside from the technological issues surrounding the idea, it’s a pretty absurd idea considering that in the age of smart phones cellphones are multi-functional and are used for a variety of purposes.  Even if the NTSB isn’t as ambitious in its proposal, there are still problems with a cellphone talking ban.  It isn’t quite unenforceable – after all, we can pretty clearly tell whether a driver is talking on his phone or not.  But it does require cops to take on an additional monitoring function that could be a waste of resources.

Now, opponents of cellphone bans often bring up other types of distracted driving.  I’ve often dismissed these as red herrings.  Talking on the phone does distract our focus away from driving that I don’t think these other activities do.  That being said, it points to the basic flaw in a cellphone ban.  It’s an attempt to regulate an obnoxious behavior.  Look, I’ve been stuck in endless traffic that was a result of rubbernecking.  I once was stuck in traffic in Atlanta on the way to the airport for half an hour because there was an accident on an overpass.  At these times I wish there were television monitors capturing the prime offenders on tape, resulting in said drivers being banned from driving for life. Similarly, anytime I get behind a slow driver or someone weaving I just know that they’re yapping on a phone, and most times I’m proved right.  But does our annoyance with obnoxious driving behavior merit regulation?

As stated above, this particular obnoxious behavior can be life threatening.  I don’t think wanting to regulate this particular action crosses the threshold into an overbearing nanny state.  But if we’re truly honest, it’s probably ultimately nothing more than an effort to make us feel like we’re doing something to stop something that, in reality, we can’t do anything about.  As we all know, every other driver on the road is a moron, and we haven’t banned idiocy.

Yet.

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