New York cops grabbing cell phones after a crash: another view

The New York State legislature has raised the hackles of libertarians and privacy advocates this month by proposing a new “textalyzer” bill which would allow police to search the recent history of drivers’ cell phones after an auto accident. Such an inspection would allegedly allow law enforcement to see if they’d been texting, making calls or viewing cat videos while operating their vehicle. This new technology is obviously designed to allow investigators to determine if drivers involved in an accident had run afoul of the state’s hands-free driving laws, which prohibit operators from holding their phones to their ear or otherwise distracting themselves from the job of safely navigating the roads. One of the many outraged protests to this proposal came from our own in-house libertarian, Taylor Millard. (AM I BEING DETAINED?!?!!!?!)

So what was Taylor’s major complaint about such a law, aside from the fact that the police want to look at something on your phone? Well… similar laws in other places don’t seem to be stopping people from doing it and the free market can handle the problem anyway.

Texting while driving is still a thing, even though plenty of states and municipalities have banned it, so the laws aren’t working because no one can regulate common sense. In fact, it appears texting while driving laws aren’t doing a lick of good. Indiana’s anti-texting law is unenforceable. Georgia and Wisconsin ran into the same thing in 2012. California had to do a massive crackdown in 2013 because they discovered even WITH their outright ban on texting and handheld phones, people were still doing it. So the free market took over.

Taylor is attempting to make two different points here to support the standard ration of libertarian outrage. First, similar laws in other states don’t seem to be working. And second, law enforcement doesn’t have any business snooping around in matters which good old capitalism can address more effectively. Both of these debate points are worth examination because at least one of them can be valid in certain circumstances. Neither apply here, however.

First there is the rarely valid argument against having a law based on the fact that people still commit crimes. You know, there’s something else you’re not supposed to do with cars… steal them. It’s against the law in case you hadn’t heard. And yet, according to some of the most recent FBI statistics, there were an estimated 721,053 thefts of motor vehicles nationwide in 2012 at a total cost of more than $4.3B. Clearly those laws are not working. Perhaps we could drive the crime rate down by making grand theft auto legal?

The second topic – that of the free market handling the problem – is a bit more complex, but it once again isn’t particularly applicable to this scenario. Sure, it’s true that many newer model cars are incorporating fancy pants technology that allows you to hook your phone into the car’s onboard systems and operate it hands free. That’s great! (This assumes, of course, that you can not only afford a new car but are also able to spring for all the optional features.) But the real question we need to examine is why they are offering these features. Our old friend the free market operates on one hard, fast, ironclad rule which is never broken for long: where there is a demand, a supply will emerge. The main reason there is a demand for these features is that there are laws against using the phone as you normally do while driving and people hate not being able to access their phones. They also hate being fined or going to jail. The car companies didn’t invest in this technology because people were crying out for a “safer” way to check their text messages and hoping to pay more for their cars. If those laws hadn’t been passed I’m fairly confident you wouldn’t be seeing these options in development.

Look, I’m not exactly a fan of these laws myself, but mostly because they only nibble around the edges of something which shouldn’t be the obligation of phone manufacturers but rather the personal responsibility of drivers. You are just as distracted and unsafe of a driver if you are putting on makeup while looking in your rear view mirror, unwrapping and eating your Egg McMuffin as you navigate the exit ramp or reading a book balanced on your steering wheel. (Yes, I’ve actually seen that last one being done in my home town.) The level of danger being posed is questionable in my layman’s opinion, but then again I think the blood alcohol content levels for DWI laws are stupidly low also. (Seriously… I think most of you can drive safely after two glasses of beer.)

But the fact is that our elected representatives in at least some states have determined that these driving while texting laws are needed and they’ve been put on the books. If you don’t like them, get them repealed. (I might even join you in that effort.) But as long as we have them, the cops are obligated to enforce them. The laws specifically apply to the use of cell phones so it’s rather churlish to insist that the cops do their jobs without being able to examine the phones. This is where my libertarian friends really set me to grinding my teeth sometimes. Not everything done by the cops is a secretive effort to discover which web sites you’re visiting or compile a registry of who you talk to for future oppression. If that’s your mindset then you may as well assume that they’re all planning on abducting you to combine your DNA with that of our alien overlords.

Not every law is needed or good, but not every action by law enforcement is some dark plot to rob you of your personal liberty. Get over it already.


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