An article published last week in The Oregonian’s ‘Hard Drive’ column asked a simple question: if using a cellphone behind the wheel is considered sufficiently dangerous to warrant Oregon’s distracted driving law, what about other potential distractions?
The question was prompted by Washington’s new law legalizing marijuana use. Pot may be legal, but should you be driving with it in your system? If marijuana is going to be legal to consume, should its potential to impair a driver be treated more-or-less the same way that we treat alcohol consumption and driving?
If the answer is ‘yes’ that opens an entirely separate conversation about impairment levels and the best way to measure them. For our purposes, however, the question is broader. As The Oregonian puts it, “whether it’s applying lipstick or reading a book (or flicking ashes from a Camel), trying to micromanage and ban every kind of distraction isn’t the quixotic endeavor that it used to be.”
The article goes on to note that “in fact, states are increasingly looking at banning eating while driving,” and cites a city in South Dakota where such an ordinance is already in place. From a logical – perhaps even a philosophical – perspective this is an interesting debate. As distracted driving laws focused on cellphones multiplied here in Oregon and elsewhere, opponents often asked why talking was so much worse than eating, smoking, fiddling with the CD player or any of the other distractions we all encounter while behind the wheel (we’ll leave texting out of this debate, since pretty much everyone agrees that texting while driving is insanely dangerous). As the newspaper notes, the thrust of that debate is slowly but surely reversing: instead of arguing that cellphone use is no more dangerous than smoking and, therefore, ought to be allowed, the argument one now hears is that lighting up is just as dangerous as dialing and, thus, should be banned.
As the paper notes, the most recent version of this discussion is focusing on impairment as Washington moves toward new marijuana laws, but the debate itself raises broader issues. As a Portland distracted driving attorney my own answer is fairly straightforward: regardless of any changes that may, or may not, eventually be made to our existing laws, operating a motor vehicle in a reckless manner has always been illegal. There is a separate public policy debate to be had over whether to expand the specific, legal definition of Oregon distracted driving, but reckless or negligent vehicle operation has long been against the law. Our courts can, and should, enforce it.