James Gill: Driving while reading still a La. option

You may be driving your car right now.

So we’ll keep the sentences short.

Give you a chance to check the road.

Highway safety is our goal.

You’re welcome.

The staccato style may not be the most effective response to the growing threat posed by distracted drivers, but it is more than legislators are willing to do. The latest attempt to ban cell phones behind the wheel died in a House committee this week. Members raised such a ruckus that Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, gave up on his bill before a vote could be taken.

Cellphones, as Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, put it are “low-hanging fruit,” and their use is hardly the only dangerous habit that the law allows on the road.

It is not against the law to read The Advocate while driving. Shoot, it is not even against the law to read the Times-Picayune. So legislators are not inclined to fret about cell phones.

Rep. Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax, observed that it would make no sense to ban cellphones when he frequently sees other drivers “reading, eating and putting on make-up.”

He had a point. Disconcerting though it may be to see another driver yakking on the phone, when a woman in a SUV comes barreling though the neighborhood applying her lipstick, evasive action is strongly recommended. And when a car emerges from the drive-though at a burger joint, you can be fairly certain it will soon be weaving through traffic. Only when the plastic containers have been hurled out of the window can other drivers relax.

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, noted that cell phones were a relatively minor distraction for him because his four kids often ride in the back seat. He doesn’t want government sticking its nose in anyway. “I am against your bill because we are becoming a nanny state,” he told Huval. Sounds like Ivey could use a nanny in his car, but this is a matter of principle.

Still, government frequently assumes a duty to protect citizens from reckless behavior, and nobody these days sees laws against drunken driving, for instance, as an intrusion. Driving with a cell phone in hand may be not be as dangerous as driving with a snootful, but there are plenty of people mourning friends and relatives who would be alive if some idiot had parked before making a call.

Cell phones were to blame for eight fatalities on Louisiana roads last year, according to Louis Frey, chairman of the state Property and Casualty Commission, who joined Huval in presenting the bill to the committee. Cell phone use makes an accident two or three times more likely, Frey said, and passing the bill should be a “no-brainer.”

Sure, there are plenty of other measures that might be taken to improve safety, but this was a logical start, Frey said, before it became apparent that this bill was DOA.

It was a pretty modest bill too. It made driving while phoning a secondary offense, meaning that the cops couldn’t stop you just for that. Only if you were running a light or breaking some other law at the time could you be cited for using a phone, and then only if it were hand-held. Hands-free devices don’t cost a lot, Frey pointed out.

Texting while driving is already verboten, so evidently legislators do have some tolerance for the nanny state.

When Landry noted that the bill was silent as to penalties, Huval was unable to say what they might be, so a staffer was sent to seek advice from the Transportation Department. In fact, Huyal’s bill merely extended to all drivers a ban that currently applies only to learners. A quick check of the Revised Statutes would have revealed that the fine is $175 for a first offense, and $500 subsequently.

That would not have been much of a deterrent with the cops powerless to pull most offenders over. Polls show that nine out of 10 people think driving while phoning is dangerous, but three out of five admit they do it anyway.

At least it stops them reading.

We hope.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.