Congress Increases Pressure on Cell Phone Companies

Published October 1, 2009

In the wake of a New York Times story claiming the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suppressed a 2003 preliminary report about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving because it didn’t want to anger Congress, pressure for a federal law banning the practice is increasing.

Such a law would give the federal government control of a legal area normally policed by states.

The 2003 study found the use of a “hands-free” cell phone device while driving did not significantly diminish the increased risk of causing a traffic accident. The study said “drivers [should] not use wireless communication devices, including text messaging systems, when driving, except in an emergency.”

The researchers asked NHTSA to approve a larger study of 10,000 drivers, but the agency denied the request.

Other Reckless Practices Ignored

Bartlett Cleland, director of the Center for Technology Freedom of the Institute for Policy Innovation in Washington, DC, says lawmakers should concentrate on banning reckless driving in general and not single out cell phone use.

“How many times have you seen someone changing clothes, eating, fixing their hair, adjusting their seat, changing radio channels, scolding the children, or having an animated chat with friends in the car while driving?” Cleland asked. “Certainly news accounts are filled with these sorts of reports. Perhaps that lovely British-accented GPS voice should be removed?

“Interestingly, research has shown that conversation alone distracts drivers, not holding onto a device,” Cleland added. “So if the goal is really to save lives through elimination of distraction, shouldn’t passengers be banned—or at least passengers who chat?”

State Issue

Jim Rutledge, a constitutional lawyer based in Maryland, says states should be weighing this type of law, not the federal government.

“This is a classic state law, traffic safety issue,” Rutledge said. “Drunken driving laws are state laws. Murder and rape and child molestation are great evils, but the states are entrusted to define, prosecute, and punish those crimes.”

Congress likely would justify entering a legal realm usually handled by the states by invoking the “commerce clause” of the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean it would be right, says Rutledge.

“Under expansive and unjustified interpretations of this clause, the Supreme Court turned this simple clause into the basis for unlimited federal power,” Rutledge said.

How to Enforce?

Cleland agrees the issue would be better handled locally, and he wonders how effective enforcement could be.

“Isn’t the best interest of society served by having the police spend more time reducing ‘reckless driving’ instead of hunting device usage or even distracting human behavior made illegal under new laws?” Cleland asked.

Rutledge agrees.

“The precious resources of the federal law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts should not be diverted from battling organized crime, illegal immigration, political corruption, price-fixing, and antitrust violations,” Rutledge said. “Leave the dangers of driver distraction to the local and state governments to sort out.”

Troy Stouffer ([email protected]) writes from Baltimore.