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When is a phone not a phone?

April 10, 2013

My wife recently jumped into the world of Kindle. I’ve been sending her all of the accumulated links, tips, and tricks that I’ve collected over the past few years and she has been enjoying the learning curve that goes along with any new technology.

We grew up in the pre-digital era when phones lived on walls in our homes and computers existed only in giant mainframe rooms.  Now we can carry our phones and our computers right in our pockets.  We had a serious discussion on what Kindle was:  Is it a book or a computer?  We agreed the answer was “yes”.  And if there was a data plan available for Kindle, would it be a phone too?  Probably, yes again.

I use Waze almost every time I distance drive.  It’s a great way to get real time information on where you’re going and the best way to get there.  More than once, I’ve received an alert of a backup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and actively searched for alternate routes.  So that’s why when I saw this article about a motorist using their hand held phone/GPS  in the car and running afoul of the California anti-texting law, I couldn’t help but think of myself in the same situation.

To be very clear I do not condone distracted driving, and that includes texting, searching for radio stations, or fumbling with coffee.  I’m sure that all of us have been unexpectedly distracted at one time for another (I know I have been) without harm to myself or other drivers.  We also know of the tragic stories of the unfinished text that the police find in the dead hand of the driver trapped in the wreck.

So what is the dividing line here?  Should the lawmakers have carefully considered the specific language of the law a little better to provide some discretion?  Should the officer have provided a warning that fulfilled the letter of the law while noting that the driver was observing the spirit of the law?  Should the driver just have accepted that it was his turn to wear the dunce cap, ponied up the fine, and vowed to be more careful the next time?

That’s a tough call all the way around.  We’re all “dumb” when it comes to a novel application of an existing thing.  Traffic rules meant to apply to horses only needed to adapt to the motorcar but the rule definitions were slower than the technology.  Wireless technology and the explosion of available apps is continuing to test the transition from the analog world, to the brave new digital world.

There’s also a “zero tolerance” component to many American laws that can usually translate into a “zero intelligence” implementation.  The driver needs to pull over, turn off the engine and get out of the car to check the traffic ahead.  The cop needs to apply the full range of the law to everyone completely.  The judges need to do the same because opening that little exception is the thin end of the wedge and serial distracted texters will be the result.

This is a great example of the extremism that drives America today.  No one can be trusted to act responsibly so explicit and sweeping rules without exception have to exist.

If I were the cop, checking on what the driver was doing was perfectly legitimate.  The driver showing that they were using the map function was equally legitimate.  It really should have stopped there.  But it didn’t.

Once that ticket was issued, I would have been ticked off but probably just paid the fine.  Is the issue that important that a year of my time in and out of court is more valuable than the $160 fine?  Probably not, but every American is guaranteed their day in court.

The various courts could have found that the conviction was merited, that this was not an unreasonable single time use without prejudice, or potentially invalidated sections or the entirety of the law.  The course of least resistance was to affirm the verdict.

So this distracted driving ruling now exists in Fresno, even though it’s clear the vehicle was fully stopped.  Every time I see a driver doing the same thing, and yes, even when I see the police typing into their dash mounted computers, I’ll wonder who is distracted now.

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