- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

What is the difference between “should not” and “cannot”?If a father tells his teenage daughter that she “should not” smoke cigarettes and she later is caught smoking, can the daughter excuse her behavior by arguing that her father never said that she “cannot” smoke?

The implication here is that the daughter is given a choice to take her father’s warning as advice, not as a directive.

Some folks might call this splitting hairs, but anyone who has raised a teenager knows that you can’t rely on vague words when you are laying down the law.

“Cannot” is clear because it means “do not” — or else there will be consequences. Still, even some adults try to skate around “should not” arena.

We know when we should not do something that’s crude, rude or wrong. But even when an authoritative person lays out specific rules in specific language, lots of folks will act of their own accord.

Take cell phone use — or misuse — for example.

Some shameless people are so attached to their wireless lifelines that it’s as if they’ve grown a new appendage. Are these people in such demand that they must spend every waking moment hollering, “Can you hear me now?”

Tuesday morning, a 44-year-old bus driver for Prince George’s County schools found out whether one cell phone call was so important that it could — and probably should — cost her a full-time job she has held for five years.

If student accounts are true, the unnamed driver “ducked down” to reach into her purse to answer a cell phone call, leaving only one hand on the wheel, before she slipped off the seat and lost control of the vehicle.

Luckily the 30 children headed to the Thurgood Marshall Middle School were spared an unthinkable fate when the bus missed a curve, crossed a median and careened 25 feet into a tree-lined embankment in Temple Hills.

The driver, who is now on administrative leave pending a school investigation, and the students were transported to hospitals, but they sustained relatively minor injuries.

The driver was issued a $75 ticket for failure to drive right of center and a $275 ticket for negligent driving. Each can count three points against a driver’s license, and the maximum points a school bus driver can carry is three points.

On its face, that number of points seems too high for someone charged with transporting children. Maryland officials ought to lower the number, for starters.

Second, school officials might want to reiterate their written policy, signed by drivers, that forbids cell phone use.

Parents are rightfully upset because several told reporters it was not the first time they witnessed drivers talking on their cell phones.

When asked to clarify the language in the school system’s memo that some originally said merely advises drivers that they “should not” use cell phones, rather than stating that they “cannot use” cell phones, county schools spokesman John White told me that I was “splitting hairs.”

When the drivers sign the agreement, they know that the prohibition on cell phone use is implied.

To his credit, Mr. White said: “Since you brought it to my attention, I’ll check to see if stronger language is necessary” during the bus driver training process. If anyone questions the policy, then “perhaps they should pull over and make their calls.”

He followed up immediately and read me the clearer, stiffer language.

Good move. Eight states already have passed such a prohibition on cell phone usage, and more must follow their lead. County officials have taken another step to improve school bus safety by equipping some buses with high-tech tracking devices, but perhaps they need to monitor human hands more closely.

How many times have we been told that you should not drive while using a cell phone because statistics indicate it is potentially dangerous? How many times have you been asked to turn off your cell phone (when you should have done it voluntarily) to keep from intruding on the space and sanctity of others?

We all know better, yet how many times have we been guilty of breaking not only the written rules but also those that are implied when it comes to exercising good judgment and good manners in using cell phones? Too many.

More cities like New York and the District are prohibiting their hand-held use while driving. Based on a Scripps Howard News Service story, more corporations like Exxon are beginning to bar their employees from using cell phones for safety concerns and fear of escalating liability costs should their drivers get into accidents while on company business.

Others cited the loss of productivity and poor customer relations as the reason that 42 percent of American companies have implemented written policies about cell phone use in the workplace.

In the past, I suggested that laws requiring hands-free cell phone use while driving are useless because they are hard to enforce, are not uniformly applied in this tri-state region and single out cell phone use among all the other accidents caused by the more extensive problem of distracted drivers.

Prince George’s County schools should continually remind their drivers that they “cannot” use cell phones so they keep both hands on the wheel while they are transporting such precious cargo.

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