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Keep Tennessee’s hands-free law

Johnson City Press • Feb 23, 2020 at 12:00 AM

The notion that a safety measure on public highways is an infringement on individual liberties is political gobbledygook.

By that logic, speed limits, turn signal requirements and other driving behaviors regulated in Tennessee law are inhibiting freedoms.

We fail to see how Tennessee’s hands-free mobile device law is any different. Distracted driving has been pandemic since the invention of cellular technology, and it has been exacerbated by the smartphone addiction dominating our daily habits.

The law has been in effect for less than nine months, but state Sen. Jon Lundberg already wants Tennessee to shelve it. He filed a bill calling for its repeal this year, well before the state has any long-term data to determine its effectiveness. As Press Staff Writer Jonathan Roberts reported in Thursday’s edition, Lundberg considers talking on a cellphone — even when operating a 1.5 ton automobile at 70 mph — a “fundamental liberty.”

Fundamental liberties — living, pursuing happiness, worship, due process, assembly, speech without government reprisal, etc. — certainly are enshrined in our way of life, but applying that label to things we merely want to do at any time and any place diminishes the whole concept of a core right.

All personal liberties end where another person’s begin, hence most of our laws that put limits on behavior. No freedom is absolute. Road safety laws are a prime example. A reasonable expectation of safety actually does apply to the right to live freely, unlike the ability to text, yack, surf the web or watch cat videos when you should be watching the road.

Besides, the law in no way prevents drivers from talking on their cellphones. It merely requires that use of hands-free technology, which is readily available at minimal cost and is standard equipment on newer vehicles,

Lundberg’s hyperbolic statement about liberty is typical of politicians who strike at the gut when stating their case for an agenda that will inevitably face opposition. In this case, it’s egregious.

Two-thirds of a year is nowhere near enough time to determine whether the hands-free law is having the desired effects — deterring distracting driving, limiting crashes and thereby reducing injuries and deaths.

While any statistic would be considered anecdotal at such an early juncture, Roberts reported that data from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security show that distracted driving-related crashes in Washington County fell by about 12% between 2018 and 2019. Across the state, distracted driving-related crashes fell by 4.5%.

Jonesborough Police Chief Ron Street summed it up precisely: “It’s something the public should not do, drive and text.”

This is not a case of government overreach. Tennessee should ignore Lundberg’s folly and retain the law.

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