By Paul Atchley
A commercial from one of our nation's automakers says that, "America got two things right: cars and freedom." But rather than thinking of cars and freedom as separate entities, it might be more accurate to say that for many Americans, cars equal freedom. And this may be why some drivers have trouble embracing laws against distracted driving.
American studies professor Dr. Cotten Seiler alluded to this at a conference I helped organize last year at the University of Kansas and in his book, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. His point is a simple one: cars have, from the very beginning, represented more than just transportation to most Americans. Cars have historically represented the freedom to go places, to make choices and to pursue many paths, perhaps even those leading to the unknown or the unexplored. A look at the early history of car advertising and car clubs that lobbied for better roads and more access to the great American landscape reveals that cars were sold as machines of freedom. Every driver has the opportunity to be mobile and unrestricted, able to “hit the open road," or, if you have the means, to get off the road altogether in vehicles made for that very purpose.
This may explain, in part, the American rejection of laws that make driving less “free." One can see this, for example, in the ever-playing debate over motorcycle helmet laws, with riders decrying restrictions to their freedom to ride unadorned by safety equipment. Even before that there was the public's rejection of seat belts until tougher enforcement and public safety campaigns became ubiquitous. A similar reaction is observed whenever there is a call for greater restrictions on distracted driving. Our governing bodies are subjected to shouts of, “Lawmakers just want to take away my rights to do what I want in my car"; or, in other words, “You are trampling on my freedom!”
While I can sympathize with a motorcyclist whose choice will most likely only affect them, the issue of distracted driving is not about preserving personal freedom at all. We don’t have the freedom to place others' safety at risk with our decisions. While we have a right to free speech, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. noted, we are not free to falsely shout, "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Likewise, while we are free to text, we are not free to text when doing so significantly increases the likelihood of killing someone else on a public roadway. No one relishes the idea of giving up their freedoms, but on the other hand, we have demonstrated that we are willing to tolerate quite a bit of regulation in exchange for an increase in safety. Few other exchanges of “freedom” for “safety” match the benefits to be gained by ending distracted driving.