Friday, July 8, 2011
Where are the Mothers Against Texting?
In the early 1960s a district attorney in Northern California resigned after losing six consecutive drunk driving jury trials. The accused were all guilty, the evidence was strong, but a form of jury nullification occurred.
It’s hard to believe today, but back then drunk driving was seen as no big deal. Those were the Mad Men days of endless cocktail parties, and the reaction against Prohibition still lingered in many minds. On any jury there were apt to be at least a couple of people who would look at the wretch in the dock and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” They could often get the other jurors to show “mercy” and acquit or hold out and hang the jury.
Changing that mindset was one of the great public relations triumphs of the Twentieth Century. Mothers Against Drunk Driving shone the spotlight on their children, spouses and relatives who had been killed or maimed by drunk drivers. In the span of a decade, public perception turned 180 degrees and the law followed shortly thereafter. In terms of social standing today, most people would rather be arrested for robbing a bank than for drunk driving.
Not long ago I was at a red light with two cars ahead of me. The light turned green, and the first car remained in place for 10-15 seconds before starting out. We came to another red light, and the same thing happened. At the next light the first car went into the left turn lane and I pulled alongside it. The young woman behind the wheel was looking down at a cell phone in her hand and hitting it repeatedly with her thumbs. The light turned green for both of us, and I moved forward. Five seconds later I checked my rear-view mirror and she was still sitting at the green light.
Society today is facing a problem with cell phones and driving that is much like what it faced with drinking and driving 40 years ago, but with one disturbing difference. The law has recognized the problem and begun to deal with it, but public perception is far behind and civil disobedience is rampant.
I suspect part of the reason for differing attitudes toward drinking and calling (or texting) while driving has to do with Puritanism, which remains a virulent force in the American public mind. The notion that alcohol is a sinful substance has credence even with many drinkers, and that makes it easier to sell drunk driving as a bad thing.
Using the telephone, on the other hand, is associated in many minds with work and efficiency, both Puritan virtues. One of the arguments made against the calling-and-driving laws is that they interfere with people who have to use the phone on the road for work purposes, as if that somehow makes the ensuing endangerment all right. And, as with drunk driving, there is a cohort of young people who haven’t figured out the problem yet.
Nearly a century ago, when Henry Ford realized his mass-produced automobiles were going to be a big hit with the public, he predicted that the automobile would lead to Prohibition. It was inconceivable, he said, that society would allow people to drink and use such a heavy, dangerous machine at the same time. We got Prohibition for other reasons, and it didn’t work, but a change in public attitudes and perceptions has worked on drunk driving to a significant degree. What will it take to get people to see the cell phone as the moral equivalent of the bottle for anyone behind the wheel?