Drawing the Line

Everyone knows that drunk drivers cause deadly car accidents. This is because alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive safely. So it is against the law to drive under the influence of alcohol.

Everyone knows that texting while driving causes deadly car accidents. This is because texting distracts your attention from driving safely. So it is against the law to text while driving.

Everyone knows that speeding causes deadly car accidents. This is because going faster than conditions and one’s ability permit make you unsafe. So it is against the law to speed.

And now West Virginia is looking to outlaw driving while wearing Google Glass. Because presumably having the internet in your heads-up display would distract your attention from driving safely.

Of course, these laws are all trying to prevent people from driving unsafely. So why not, instead of a whole jumble of laws dealing with specific causes of unsafe driving (and having to be written to deal with new, unforeseen causes), why not have a single law punishing… you know… unsafe driving?

Because these particular causes of unsafe driving are worse than any other? If you say so. But even then, they could just be grounds for enhanced penalties for violating the basic law. No need for separate laws.

The actual reason is that “unsafe driving” is a very subjective concept. It’s really an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, not readily reduced to formulas. Different people have different abilities, physiologies, training, etc., so one person could drive safely with distractions/speeds/alcohol intake that would make another person a deadly menace. If all you’ve got is a cop who can testify that “this person was driving unsafely because of X Y Z,” when it’s not necessarily so that X Y or Z equal “dangerous, then you’re not going to get a lot of convictions.

And so we draw a line. Forget individual variations — as a matter of law, if you do X, Y or Z while driving, you are automatically a menace, and that’s that. The police officer doesn’t have to make a judgment call about whether you were actually unsafe. All he has to do is determine whether you did X Y or Z.  It’s so much easier to prove that you had crossed the line, than to prove that you were actually being unsafe.

Of course, this is overbroad and unjust. Because where we draw the line is arbitrary. Someone driving 70 is no more dangerous than someone going the limit of 65, but that’s where we drew the line.

Where we draw the line depends. For speeding, it’s sort of a lowest-common-denominator kind of thing: We pick a speed that, for this road, most drivers should be able to manage safely. And by “most drivers” we mean “poor drivers.” Because as a society we’ve decided that we’d rather make it easier to get a license, and we’re willing to accept a certain number of traffic fatalities per year in exchange for letting more people drive. So sure, there are plenty of people who could manage it safely at a higher speed, but they’re going to have to obey the same line drawn for everyone else.

For alcohol, it’s more a lobbying kind of thing: Victims and families of victims of drunk driving are understandably upset that people are committing reckless homicides and being treated like it was just oopsie an accident. So they lobby lawmakers to make driving with any alcohol in your bloodstream a crime. And over the years, the amount of alcohol required gets smaller and smaller, because who wants to lobby for the alternative? Who wants to be the guy pushing to make the law go easier on those killers? And so the arbitrary line keeps ratcheting down because nothing is there to prevent it.

For things like texting, it’s more of a zero-tolerance thing: We can’t ever know which text or other distraction is the one you could do safely or the one that would cause a pileup on I-70. So we just outlaw all of them. (If we were intellectually honest, we’d simply outlaw driving while distracted, which is the actual problem. But that would fill the jails with moms who were yelling at kids, people driving while furious after an argument, girls putting on makeup on the way to work, truckers eating tacos, and the like. And we don’t want to do that, do we?)

It’s not just traffic laws — the law is filled with examples of “bright line” rules. All are arbitrary. Some try to strike a balance, some are purely political, and some are unthinking zero-tolerance rules. But the lines have been drawn. And that’s the important thing.

The important thing is that the line is drawn somewhere. Because it’s not about justice. And it’s not about safety.

It’s about not having to make subjective decisions.

And now you know.

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