OUR OPINION: Biking, driving and the 'nanny state'
Where does the responsive state end and the nanny state begin? Maybe somewhere between a law that bans texting while driving and a law that commands young people to wear helmets while riding their bikes. One of those behaviors -- texting while dr...
Where does the responsive state end and the nanny state begin?
Maybe somewhere between a law that bans texting while driving and a law that commands young people to wear helmets while riding their bikes.
One of those behaviors -- texting while driving -- clearly is the business of the state. That's because it puts other motorists at significant risk, apparently on a level with driving while drunk.
But the other behavior strictly is an individual decision. It affects society only indirectly, such as when the time comes to pay an injured bicyclists' bills.
That makes the bike-helmet decision one that's better left up to young people and their parents.
The Grand Forks City Council is considering both ordinances. Here are a few items for council members to consider:
It's one thing to encourage young people to behave responsibly, such as by teaching bicycle safety in schools. It's another thing to require that they do, especially when that requirement gets backed up by the power of the police.
Nor is the case for mandating bike helmets nearly as open-and-shut as the case for, say, requiring seat belts. Yes, bike helmets reduce the risk of certain types of head injuries. But requiring helmets by law also reduces bicycling among the affected group, a National Bureau of Economic Research study reported earlier this year.
Given bicycling's health and fitness benefits, is that a tradeoff we want to make?
(As an aside, building bike paths is a much more effective way of reducing injuries. Amsterdam's bike-path network keeps car-bicycle collisions rare. As a result, Amsterdam has both a very low rate of bike accidents and a very low rate of bike-helmet use.)
On routine individual decisions such as this, society should return to the "little platoons" of the family and the neighborhood and let them handle the job.
For their part, critics of a texting-while-driving ban also have some good points. It's true, for example, that enforcement of such bans is spotty and difficult. "In Tennessee, the texting ban has been in effect for three months, but no citations have been issued yet," PBS Newshour reported in October.
But it's also true that texting-while-driving is exceptionally dangerous, not only to the driver but also to others. It's a "perfect storm" of distraction, "a universe all its own when it comes to risk," ConsumerReports.org. noted in October.
In its statement, ConsumerReports.org was reporting on the conclusions of the federal government's Distracted Driving Summit.
Among the summit's conclusions:
"The parallel between the increase in safety belt acceptance and use since the 1980s offers lessons for fighting distracted driving," ConsumerReports.org reported.
"Legislation mandating wearing safety belt use became widespread. But education and a general shift in public attitudes also played a big role. At some point, for many people it just became 'wrong' to drive without a safety belt.
"The same needs to happen for cell phone use and texting -- drivers need to accept that it poses a hazard and willingly stay off the phone."
By passing texting-and-driving bans (as 28 states now have done), society is trying to move the "culture of driving" in that much safer direction.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald