Taxing, Texting and the Cost of Freedom


sign about prohibiting texting while driving

Sign about texting ban in the City of Huntsville


I was, it turns out, wrong to have been annoyed about the billboards.

To begin with, the texting-and-driving ban in Huntsville and Madison annoys me. It’s a bad law. But we’ll come back to that. It’s also my government taking away my freedoms and that annoys me more.

So when I saw the big red billboards that went up around town, I was initially doubly annoyed. My government was taking away my freedoms, and then spending my money to tell me about it? Thanks, but, really, I’d just as soon keep my money. And my freedom, for that matter.

It turned out, however, that the city wasn’t paying for the billboards, they were donated by, I believe, the billboard company. Well, that’s something at least.

But then the city signs started going up all over town. And, I would love to be corrected, but I’m assuming that those are paid for by the city, which means, rather, the city is making residents pay for them.

Making it slightly more interesting, while I’m annoyed at the expenditure of government funds for the signs, they will, presumably, eventually pay for themselves, or, at least, the law they are enforcing will pay for them. The traffic fines from the law should eventually pay for the signs the city put up.

And that’s the trick, isn’t it?

There’s no financial benefit to freedom.

The city can make money by limiting the things its citizens can do. Make something illegal, and you turn it into a revenue source.

The text ban is a bad law. It’s arbitrary. I can’t use my GPS to give me directions while I’m driving around town, but I can pull out a folding map of Huntsville and read it while driving. If my phone is visible and I see the screen light up, that’s legal if it’s lighting up because of a phone call but not if it’s lighting up because of a text message. I can’t set up my iPhone to play music while I’m driving, but I can dig through a CD holder, find a CD, put it in and find a particular song.

It’s supposedly done for safety, but the reality is it’s a broad-stroke swipe at an easy target in order to pretend to be doing something constructive.

Sure, texting causes accidents. But so does changing a radio or CD player. So why not make those illegal? Talking to a passenger is another leading cause of accidents. Why not ban that? Or go after the big factors. Rubbernecking — checking out an accident while driving past — is one of the leading causes of accidents. I’ve seen people do it all the time. I’ve never seen anyone arrested for it, and there’s law enforcement right there on the scene. Fatigued driving is another of the leading causes of accidents. So make driving at night illegal.

But those things would be impractical, inconvenient, unpopular or require effort. A texting ban is very contemporary and very easy. It’s not about safety, or the city would be doing more unpopular things to make people more safe. They would craft a law that’s consistent, rather than one where it’s perfectly legal to read the news as you’re driving, as long as it’s in the newspaper and not a phone. It’s not about safety; it’s about politics. It’s about paying lip service to the things that would actually require time and effort to address.

And as a result, we lose the right to use a GPS or listen to an iPod or anything number of other things that are completely practical, largely safe, and no more dangerous than their common non-electronic-device-based equivalents.

But something doesn’t have to be wrong, or even a bad thing to do, for a city to make money off of banning it. As long as the voters aren’t willing to vote someone out of office purely over the text ban, there’s no incentive to overturn it, not when there’s revenue to be made from new laws and no return on investment for freedom.

It’s an interesting quandary for someone Libertarian-leaning like myself — I’d almost be willing to pay higher taxes to offset the fine revenue in order to maintain my freedoms. The idea of “at what cost, freedom” is an old cliché. Sad how relevant it is to government today.

3 Responses

  1. Is the ban on all forms of hands-on phone use? How is it worded?

  2. A good story on the ban, as well as a link to the ordinance:

  3. A better law to address this concern would be a “distracted drivers” law. I’d like to see the Times follow-up on this and see how many tickets have been written for it vs. what kind of complaints (if any) the city is getting for it.

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