Banning texting while driving is a state matter

Driving is dangerous. That's easy to forget because we do it daily. It's common and completely comfortable. But comfort breeds distraction, even under ideal conditions. Insert text messaging and distracted driving increases exponentially.

To lessen that distraction Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act (ALERT). The proposal will coerce states to adopt laws banning drivers from texting while behind the wheel.

It's hard to argue that texting doesn't distract drivers from more pressing matters. Most of us have seen it happen. On the surface, ALERT sounds like a fine idea. However, to determine if Sen. Schumer's proposal is legitimate we must dig below the surface.

Do we need the central government enacting anti-texting laws? Does Congress even have that authority? The answer is no to both questions.

Twenty-five states already have some form of ban on texting while driving. Those laws passed without federal prodding. Additionally, Schumer cites the regulation of interstate commerce as authority for his bill. He reasons that texting devices are produced, conveyed and used in interstate commerce; therefore Congress can take action under Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. However, Article 1, Section 8 allows Congress to regulate commerce only, not personal acts or the private use of products.

Under Schumer's reasoning Congress could ban anything. Ready for a federal ban on applying make-up while driving? How about federal bans on tuning radios or changing CDs? Should Congress prohibit conversation with passengers, or traveling with children? All can be distracting and all can be considered interstate commerce under Schumer's misapplication of Article 1, Section 8. In fact, Congress can claim authority over anything with such an interpretation.

Let's also consider Washington's bully tactics. If Congress has constitutional authority to enact ALERT it should do so outright. But no! Congress prefers to force state compliance by withholding highway funds, which is how ALERT accomplishes the texting ban. It is an authoritarian act and the antithesis of Congress' enumerated powers.

Frankly, it's inconceivable that free people need Sen. Schumer to pass a law to prevent them from doing what they can quit on their own. Anyone who knows they shouldn't be texting is smart enough to stop without Schumer's assistance. Additionally, legislating to prevent drivers from texting ignores the basic function of law.

Laws don't stop bad behavior, they identify it. There are laws against theft, rape and murder. Yet theft, rape and murder occur daily. The existence of laws does not prevent lawlessness, nor does law prevent people not inclined toward lawlessness from committing crime. Honorable people won't steal, rape, or murder even if those acts aren't criminalized.

Punishment after the fact, not prevention, is all we can reasonably expect from the law. Sen. Schumer isn't so stupid as to believe his bill will prevent texting while driving, but he thinks we are that stupid.

Laws simply determine acceptable social behavior. To legislate for the punishment of texting while driving is one thing. To pretend laws will prevent acts that are easily self-regulated is slavish and immature.

A ban on texting while driving is sensible. Leave it to Charles Schumer to expand, corrupt and spin the idea until it makes no sense at all.


Anthony W. Hager has authored since 2003. More than 200 of his commentaries have appeared in a variety of publications and web outlets.

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