- - Friday, July 25, 2014

It’s difficult for some people not to tell other people what to do, and sometimes it’s a shame that people have to be told what they ought to have figured out themselves. President Obama is sending $40 million to the states to encourage police to write traffic tickets to foolish people who use their cellphones while driving. The House nixed a further $78 million in funding for the cause, saying the states can decide for themselves. That’s common sense, too.

Researchers at the University of Colorado and the RAND Corporation studied the effect of laws prohibiting drivers from using handheld cellphones and have concluded that such laws have not made the roads safer. Their new study, which will appear in the journal Transportation Research, found that accident rates didn’t change after the state enacted one of the nation’s most restrictive cellphone bans in 2008.

This proves mostly that you can find studies to prove anything, and next year there will no doubt be a learned study with the opposite conclusion. The roads are often obstacle courses, and common sense tells most of us to eliminate as many distractions as possible while piloting two tons of steel down a highway at 80 miles an hour. Unfortunately, common sense is a scarce commodity. Only Arizona and Montana have not banned the phones on public roads.

Some police and highway patrol officers don’t always enforce the law. Drivers sometimes hold their phones low enough to prevent being seen on the phone, which adds to the distraction. In some states, drivers can be ticketed for texting while driving, which is distraction on steroids, only if they are pulled over for another violation. In other states, texting is against the law, but using a cellphone to look at a map is not. One cheeky British journalist escaped punishment when he persuaded a credulous judge that he was merely holding his phone to his head “warming his ears.”

There are generic laws against reckless driving that cover weaving across lanes, driving while putting on makeup, eating a bag of chips or reading a map when the driver should be looking at the road ahead. None would be necessary if drivers could be counted on to exercise rudimentary common sense, but that, alas, is too much to expect of many motorists, as a drive down almost any highway attests. The cellphone is a wonderful luxury of modern life and has become indispensable. But in its place. Few of us are so important that we can’t pull to the side of the road to make a phone call, and leave the road to the moving traffic. Even a smartphone requires a smart user.