Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

EDITORIAL>>Regulating behavior

Our libertarian impulses are triggered each time lawmakers want to criminalize innocent private behavior like not fastening seatbelts or driving while text messaging. Usually, the authors of such bills are conservative Republicans who otherwise talk about smaller and less intrusive government.

Usually we wind up seeing their point. So it is with the sponsors of bills that would outlaw electronic messaging by teenage drivers, who are involved in an extraordinary number of car wrecks. Rep. Allen Kerr of Little Rock, the sponsor of one of the bills that passed the House of Representatives, said making it unlawful to drive while using cell phones for people under the age of 18 would reduce traffic accidents and insurance rates. It would require drivers to use hands-free technology in their vehicles until they are 20 years old. Sen. Kim Hendren of Gravette has a similar but lighter bill in the Senate.

The light punishments in all the bills and the innocent nature of the misdeeds will not insure full compliance, but we have no doubt that it would help. Innocent is not harmless.

The question is, why restrict the law to teenagers? If you are going to make reckless behavior illegal, it ought to be illegal for adults as well.

Sen. Hendren and Rep. Ray Kidd of Jonesboro have introduced bills that would require drivers of any age to use hands-free technology when using wireless devices and would impose light penalties for violations. A Jonesboro physician offered some compelling testimony for the bills. His 27-year-old son committed suicide in December after agonizing for months over his role in the death of another young man. He was text messaging when his car struck the otherís. If it had been illegal, the doctor knew that his son would not have been messaging while he was at the wheel.

Yes, we know where this is headed: the nanny state, where a wise and righteous government regulates risky private behavior for your own good. Whatís next: fines for eating Twinkies and Sugar Puffs?

But there is a line to be drawn. The state has a compelling interest in regulating private behavior that puts everyone else in harmís way and imposes a high social cost. Wireless technology has created just such an instance.