Car Guy

Sail Fawns and “One for the Road”

Why not ban bad drivers instead?

By 1.14.09

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The National Safety Council (one of those private but sounds-like-it's-the government "interest groups") wants to see cell-phone use in cars banned.

I hate sail fawns, too  -- they're overused by self-important busybodies who seem to believe their constant in-public yawping makes them look like Important People On the Way Up. But banning their use in vehicles is the automotive equivalent of gun control: It blames a tool, an inanimate device, for the idiocy of those (always a minority) who cannot handle that tool responsibly.

The real problem isn't cell phones. It's the degraded quality of the American driver; the might-as-well-be-nonexistent training  -- and testing  -- that we require before we let people get behind the wheel.

The Safety Council says that flapping your gums on a cell while driving is akin to drunk driving; specifically, that it works out to a degree of impairment comparable to having a BAC level of .04 to .06 -- which is close to the legal minimum necessary in most states to be convicted of DUI.

But here's the thing: The DUI/DWI standard has been dumbed-down, too. It used to be (about 20 years ago) .10 or .12 BAC -- a standard that was arrived at not by pulling a number out of a hat but by examining accident stats. It was determined that actual accidents -- real ones, not theoretical "might have happeneds" -- correlated with BAC levels of .10 or higher.

So -- reasonably -- the law reflected this.

Then came Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (You know that anything with "Mothers" in its title is not going to be reasonable -- right?)

No surprise, a campaign of emotive browbeating and termagant pressure tactics caused state DUI/DWI standards to be revised downward to the point where "background" BAC levels of .08 or less that used to be legal  -- because there was no evidence of a real-world correlation with actual accidents -- became evidence of "drunk driving."

The ironic fact that most of the drivers so ensnared had given no evidence of "drunk" driving -- other than blowing into a Breathalzyer  -- never bothered MADD. These drivers just got caught up in sobriety checkpoint dragnets; otherwise they would have gone unnoticed  -- and made it home without incident. The actual facts about BAC levels and accidents (again, real ones) supports this irrefutably.

But the organization fixated on theoretical risk -- ever diminishing, of course, and always based on the least common denominator. The least able, the most marginally skilled driver.

And so it is today with sail fawns.

Take one borderline inadequate driver. Add a cell -- or a frozen margarita over dinner -- and, hey! presto! You have an accident waiting to happen. But take away the cell (and the margarita) and you still have a marginal driver. Who is still an accident waiting to happen.

Just slightly less so.

Conversely, take a high-skilled driver. Add one margarita over dinner -- or cell phone chat -- and you've still got a driver with a higher skill level than the didn't-have-a-drink, not gabbling on his sail fawn marginally skilled driver n the example above.

Which of the two is the more likely to run a light and t-bone your car?

Of course.

And yet, we focus relentlessly the law and all its punitive powers not on the actual danger but on the assumption that everyone is an imbecile -- and ought to be treated accordingly.

The problem with that approach, of course, is there's no fixing stupid. You just get more of it  -- and aggravate the hell out of the people who aren't.

Maxim: A little skill goes a long way. Much longer  -- in terms of public safety -- than yet another Band Aid law designed to protect the least common denominator from itself.

And us from him.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.