Any government action runs the risk of infringing on personal freedom. It’s a conundrum that our elected officials must face with every proposed law that is intended to keep the population safe and a balance that is struck every day.
Although I know I run the risk of alienating many of the people who read this column with what I’m about to say, I feel like it needs to be said, so here goes: I steadfastly support the state and federal government passing laws that regulate what people can do when driving a car.
I’ve always felt this way. In the mid-1980s, I applauded when New York State passed a law requiring that drivers and front-seat passengers buckle their seat belts while the vehicle was in motion.
When cars first came along, it didn’t seem necessary. But as cars got faster and roads better, we didn’t cling to the idea that we shouldn’t have to wear seat belts because we never had to wear them before. We understood that the people who passed laws when the car first came out couldn’t have known how different it would be in 50 or 100 years. So as the car and society evolved, the law did, too.
Yet some people objected to being told what to do in a country where we had always been free to make our own decision about seat belts. But after a while, buckling up became second nature. And it did save lives.
That’s how it seems to go with cars. The government is always imposing new regulations and passing laws in the name of a greater good.
It happens all the time when something useful in some circumstances becomes dangerous in the hands of unstable people. Of course, I’m talking about smartphones. Most of us understand that it’s dangerous to send a text message or update our Facebook status while we’re driving, but enough people were doing it and hurting themselves or others that legislators banned the practice. That made sense. Now that we’ve criminalized texting while driving, only the criminally stupid text while driving.
But it’s not just laws; it’s also smaller steps. For example, a few blocks from the street where I grew up, railroad tracks crossed a street, so there was always a rail crossing gate there. People tended to slow down when they approached the warning sign and rail crossing, which was a good thing, because the road dipped right past the tracks. But when the trains stopped using the tracks and the warning sign and the gates were removed, people would just fly off that hill.
So a stop sign was installed at the intersection. Some people were upset. They didn’t drive like maniacs, and they resented having their travel restricted in the name of protecting people from a minuscule percentage of the population who did. Why couldn’t the police just arrest the lawbreakers? Why wasn’t society doing something to address causes of bad driving such as “Smokey and the Bandit” movies and video games that glorify midair speeding?
But that sign has been there now for years, and I find myself wondering why anyone would have complained.
I know what people say: Government is overstepping its bounds. We should be able to make our own decisions when it comes to our cars. Cars don’t kill people; bad drivers in cars kill people.
But the car has something to do with it, too, doesn’t it?