Opinion: Legislature should do budget, leave us alone

The North Carolina General Assembly has some huge issues facing it in the final month of this fiscal year, from reconciling the conflicting budget priorities of Mike Easley, Jim Black and Marc Basnight to raising the cigarette tax, relieving counties of the Medicaid burden and deciding whether we’ll have a lottery. So what are legislators spending their precious time on? Deciding how far to insert the government into our lives.

Such vital pieces of legislation range from the adoption of the cougar as the state cat (we instead nominate Cujo, official crazed house cat of HomeinHenderson.com) to a ban on human cloning (as if the federal government hadn’t spent enough time and ink trying to stop science in its tracks).

If you’re a regular reader of The Daily Dispatch’s editorial page, you’ve probably seen opinion pieces praising two of the more dubious bills that look likely to pass. One would ban drivers from using handheld cellphones. The other would force stores to tag the kegs of beer they sell and maintain detailed records on the purchasers for three years.

On the surface, both of those bills seem like reasonable ideas. We all have seen careless drivers endanger others because they’re too engrossed in their cellphone calls to devote their attention to the road, and there’s no denying that it’s better to drive with two hands than one. As for keg registration, who can argue with any effort to make it tougher for underage drinkers to get beer, particularly in a form that encourages binge drinking?

We agree that those bills are full of good intentions — and we all know where a road paved with good intentions leads.

We’re leery of any proposed law that tells us we must stop doing something or collects extra information on us. Such legislation must have strong evidence that it will have a positive effect, as opposed to a negative argument, such as “Why should anyone need to do that?” or “If it saves even one life, isn’t it worth it?” Maybe that makes us right-wing whackos, but we tend to believe that the primary purpose of government in the United States is to protect our liberty, not gnaw away at it.

Unfortunately, the primary arguments for the cellphone ban and keg registration boil down to “It can’t hurt, so why not?” That’s not good enough.

In the case of the cellphone legislation, 1,500 accidents a year in North Carolina involve drivers who were using cellphones, and cellphone users are more likely to rear-end another car. But what about all the accidents that aren’t caused by cellphones? A 2003 study by the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center found that cellphones account for only 1.5 percent of driver distractions.

The distraction could be a handheld phone conversation, which the legislation targets. It could be, as the Dispatch argues, a hands-free cellphone conversation; why not ban them as well? Or it could be any conversation with passengers, who can be even bigger distractions because they can draw your eyes as well as your ears; why not ban anyone from talking to the driver, as bus lines often do? In fact, aside from drunken driving, we can’t imagine any greater road peril than the distraction posed by two small children causing a ruckus in the back seat; why not ban children as car passengers unless they are enclosed in cones of silence?

The problem isn’t the cellphone; the problem is that too many drivers allow almost anything to draw their attention from the road. From the radio to clothes to food to makeup, we have a tendency to think our cars can survive on autopilot for a few moments while we attend to more important matters.

We shouldn’t single out one distraction just because it’s a popular pet peeve. People who let themselves be sucked into a phone call to the extent that they’re dangerous drivers are just plain dangerous drivers, and they’ll find something to draw their attention from the task at hand regardless of whether that hand can grab a cellphone. Try educating drivers better, and leave us alone to take the occasional quick call from home to pick up a gallon of milk.

At least you can make a case that some accidents would be prevented with the cellphone bill; it’s a different story entirely with the keg legislation. We can’t figure out what exactly keg registration would accomplish.

It wouldn’t stop teenagers from drinking beer. Anyone who can get a keg while underage can get a six-pack or a case.

It wouldn’t stop parents from buying kegs for their teenage children in the wrongheaded belief that enabling beer drinking is OK as long as an adult provides oversight and a safe location. Those parents already are breaking the law in their homes; there’s no mystery about the source of the kegs when such parties are broken up.

It wouldn’t stop drinking and driving. A keg at least has the virtue of being fixed in one place once it’s tapped. Cans and bottles can go anywhere, meaning the people drinking from them can move from place to place between or during drinks.

It wouldn’t save lives. Similar laws are in place in 25 states; how many of them miraculously put an end to teenage drinking and its related problems?

It might reduce the number of keg parties, if you believe that the $50 penalty for removing a tag from a keg is a bigger deterrent to enabling underage drinking than the existing laws against supplying alcohol to people under age 21.

Here’s what it would do: Create an unfunded mandate on beer sellers to maintain detailed records on their customers for three years, long after the keg and its contents are gone, and create a privacy-invading personal history of anyone who dares to buy a keg, whatever the reason. If someone who’s old enough chooses to buy a keg every weekend for legal consumption, why is it anyone else’s business? Why should that information be compiled for public exposure? And why for three years?

Please, dear legislators, focus on the big problems before trying to save us from ourselves.