The Message Government Sends When Everything’s Regulated

If we’re still permitted to say that something is “a guy thing,” that’s my excuse for disliking audio directions coming from a GPS device in the car.  If more detail is required, I suppose it has to do with a preference for seeing a visual representation of the path rather than hearing somebody read descriptive instructions.

My wife has the opposite preference, but that didn’t save her from (in my view) a frivolous ticket for texting and driving in Seekonk that illustrates the dangers and economic harm that can be done when we allow government to become the guardian of all safe practices and common sense.

Spending her workdays driving around Southeastern Massachusetts providing assessment of and instruction in the homes of developmentally challenged children, my wife often finds herself on unfamiliar roads.  Typically, her smartphone sits in the console of her car, with a friendly voice describing the next turn on her way to where she’s headed.

Occasionally, if a spot is especially noisy or confusing, she’ll hold the phone in her hand to better hear the directions and to glance quickly for confirmation, if necessary.  And so she was when a Seekonk police officer spotted her and pulled her over.  He cited her for a violation of Massachusetts General Law 90 Section 13, “Composing, sending or reading of electronic messages while operating a motor vehicle prohibited.”

Under the law, an “electronic message” includes email, text messages, instant messages, and Web surfing using a “mobile electronic device,” which would not seem to include listening to GPS directions.  The law goes on to make matters even clearer by stating that “mobile electronic device” does “not include any audio equipment or any equipment installed, or affixed, either temporarily or permanently, in a motor vehicle for the purpose of providing navigation.”

Except for “junior operators” and drivers of public transportation, Massachusetts has no law against the use of cell phones as cell phones.  It would be a stretch, therefore, to argue that the fact that a GPS device can also text means it isn’t a GPS device (otherwise cell phones would be implicitly banned) or that a GPS in the hand is a “mobile electronic device” because it isn’t “installed or affixed.”

When my wife explained that she wasn’t sending any messages, the officer told her that the town was giving out tickets mainly as a public awareness campaign and that she could contest it in court.  Even with a relatively obvious case, a driver’s choices are either to pay the $100 ticket or to pay a $25 filing fee, disrupt his or her life with a court appearance, and potentially still have to pay the original fine.  How many drivers would simply pay the penalty even if they were pulled over on the barest of pretenses?

Using this ban on texting and driving as a money grab is actually the preferable abuse of the law.  The notion that police officers are handing out tickets as a way to send a message, for “public awareness” or otherwise, is much more dangerous.  Being pulled over can be a startling, embarrassing incident, leading to the officer’s review of one’s record and visual inspection of vehicle, driver, and passengers.  When the violation is one of which the average person cannot reasonably be expected to be aware — in this case, holding a GPS device in your hand — the message that the officer most dramatically sends is:  “We can always pull you over and cite you.”

The adage that those who are doing nothing wrong have nothing to fear begins to lose its comforting effect as it becomes more likely that everybody is breaking some law or other at all times.  Every year, town and city councils, state-level legislators, and Congress pass more laws, with regulators at every level filling out the details in ways that can seem sparsely related to their legal justification.

To pluck a few examples from a wide scope in the current legislative session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, legislators are considering a bill that would impose minimum efficiency standards for household plumbing and electrical fixtures, allowing government officials to test and inspect them.  Another bill would require the packaging for all products to include information on recycling.  In campaign finance, some legislators want any individual who spends $100 expressing an opinion on a local ballot question to have to file regular reports.  One bill would make it a crime to post messages online that might make others (particularly politicians, one supposes) feel uncomfortable or inspire others to do so, while another would broaden the definition of “stalking” and reduce the amount of actual threat it must represent.

A wide array of passed and proposed licensing requirements gives the impression that anybody thinking of making money doing anything at all must hire a lawyer to summarize the requirements.  Related to my wife’s occupation, the General Assembly is considering licensing requirements, complete with continuing education and state inspections, for anybody who provides any sort of personal care services for money.

The society this legal culture is creating is one in which residents and visitors alike must always be on guard, lest they attract attention and are discovered to be violating some unknown law.  That wariness goes double for any activity by which one might support a family and grow the economy in a world of advanced technology and high mobility, where freedom and innovation cannot merely be buzzwords on campaign literature.

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