Lawmakers in Lansing exploring popular ways to pass unpopular regulations have found an easy mark in the most underrepresented segment of the state’s population – teenagers. The state’s House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill last week, introduced by Rep. David Law (R-Commerce Township), that would make using a cell phone while driving illegal for anyone below the age of 18. Should the bill pass, underage driving-while-chatting will become the state’s newest moving violation, punishable with a $50 fine. While any effort to make roads safer is commendable, the bill’s limited scope and discriminatory distinctions deem its practical value questionable. Lawmakers can’t substitute half-baked policy for real improvement and should expand the bill to cover all of the state’s drivers if they are serious.
The dangers of using a cell phone while driving are unambiguous. Unfortunately, the state fails to acknowledge that the hazards exist for everyone, irrespective of age. The National Transportation Safety Board found in-transit cell phone use to be equally dangerous for drivers of all ages, yet state lawmakers, likely for reasons of political convenience, chose to target younger drivers in regulating the practice.
In singling out a politically impotent group such as teenagers, legislators can appear responsive without spending the political capital to push full, yet controversial, changes. Had the fines applied to all drivers, the greater involvement of lobbyists and interest groups would have made the stakes – and the political costs – much higher. But political opportunism is no excuse for bad public policy, especially when it involves directly discriminating against a portion of the population.
State Rep. Paul Condino (D-Southfield) favors more expansive legislation that would target all drivers, arguing correctly that the “issue of cell phone use is an issue that impacts, quite frankly, every driver.” Considering that only 3.7 percent of the state’s drivers are below the age of 18, restrictions placed on such a small slice of the population will have a negligible impact. In ignoring the other 96.3 percent of the driving population, the law, by any reasonable measure, serves little practical value.
State lawmakers shouldn’t take the safety of Michigan drivers so lightly. If driving-while-chatting is a hazard worth regulating, it should be regulated effectively, among all age groups, regardless of the political costs involved. By choosing the path of least resistance, state lawmakers speak volumes about their real priorities – road safety being far from the top.