An absolutist will tell you that a phallic symbol is anything that is longer than it is wide. Similarly, an absolutist civil libertarian will claim that you can walk up behind somebody, place the barrel of a gun a millimeter from the victim's head, and pull the trigger—and in that split second before the bullet penetrates the victim's skin, you still haven't committed a crime.
These people are fast (and, thankfully, finally) becoming the last holdouts against legislation that would make it illegal to text while driving. It seems absurd that anyone would be opposed to such a law, other than the deadly nitwits who are addicted to that piece of electronic crap and feel the need to stay in touch with all of the other nitwits at all times. But those self-proclaimed protectors of civil liberties are out there, making the world unsafe for you and me, often citing nonexistent "constitutional rights" and/or distorted examples of "basic human rights."
To be sure, I appreciate civil liberties. I'm well aware of the line that those who would trade liberty for security end up with neither. I bristled at some of the crackpot notions that spilled forth after Sept. 11. But I also understand that there are reasonable limits to everything. I can call somebody fat and ugly, but I can't call him a fat and ugly child molester.
Alas, not everybody agrees that there are limits. I know one guy who thinks that it's absolutely unconstitutional for a passing cop to look into your car to see if you're drinking or texting or cooking crystal meth while driving. Another thinks that it's perfectly OK to walk out his front door and fire a gun as long as it doesn't hit someone or damage property. The gun guy sincerely believes that a law preventing him from doing that is the start of a slippery slope that will lead to the confiscation of his weapons and leave him helpless against a sinister government.
And both of those guys think that, at the very most, texting while driving should only be a secondary offense. I guess that means that if you're texting while driving, and you kill somebody, the person is even deader than if you hadn't been texting.
This line of thinking (I can't, in good conscience, call it "logic") is simply wrong. It's against the law to drive while drunk; the police don't have to wait until a drunk hits somebody or something. The courts have steadfastly upheld the legality of sobriety checkpoints as a common-sense approach to a dangerous societal problem.
Back in January 2007, Arizona State Rep. Steve Farley, a District 28 Democrat, thought that he was proposing a pretty straightforward piece of common-sense legislation when he called for a ban on text-messaging while driving. But the cell-phone lobbyists sprang to life; Republicans whined about whatever they whine about; and even the Arizona Daily Star blasted his efforts as futile. It didn't stand a chance.
The next time, it got surprising support, to the point that the State Senate actually broke its own rules by cutting off debate to avoid letting the bill come to a vote.
But now, just three short years later—a mere blink of an eye, considering the generally glacial manner in which legislative bodies (not to mention societies) change directions—it looks as though Farley's bill may become law in 2010.
"It's been an amazing turnaround," says Farley. "All over the country, laws are being passed to tackle this incredibly dangerous practice. It's ridiculous that it ever got to this point and that people have died because drivers couldn't put the phone away and just drive. We could have stopped it before it got started."
Farley's bill was picked up last year by State Sen. Al Melvin, a District 26 Republican. He, too, ran into inexplicable opposition, especially in his own party. Now the two strange bedfellows have joined forces, and the outlook is quite good.
Melvin and Farley both say that the cell-phone industry has done a 180 on the issue and is no longer blocking all attempts at legislation restricting the use of their products behind the wheel.
"They don't want to go down the road that the tobacco industry went," says Farley. "They realize that they manufacture and promote the use of a product that is dangerous if used incorrectly. I have no doubt that they see huge lawsuits on the horizon."
A broad coalition, including much of the insurance industry and several traffic-safety organizations, has lined up in support of the legislation. According to Melvin, "Texting while driving is an incredibly addictive practice, and people aren't going to stop until something bad happens to them or it becomes too risky, financially and legally, to continue."
The civil libertarians—sincere or otherwise—will decry the proposed law, which would make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that cops can pull somebody over just for doing that. Farley thinks it should have happened years ago, but better late than never.
"A recent poll showed that 97 percent of all Americans think that texting while driving should be against the law. Unfortunately, the other 3 percent all hold-committee chairmanship positions in the Arizona State Legislature."