Here's Something: Hands-free phone law a bad judgment call

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If you’ve ever driven along Route 115 in Gray and seen a woman walking at a fast clip carrying a small American flag, you’ve just observed longtime Republican state Rep. Sue Austin.

Austin is the kind of American I admire. She’s bold with her love of country, literally waving her flag day after day, season after season, year after year. This country needs more such leaders totally in love with freedom.

But what we mostly have in Augusta and Washington are people in love with making rules. Our representatives and senators no doubt love America and want the best for the people they represent, but they tend to forget about freedom along the way.

One senator I know who loves both America and freedom is state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. Even non-Democrats in his Lakes Region constituency admire Diamond because he cares for the average guy and is strong on public safety.

Diamond, a former secretary of state, has always been hawkish when it comes to Maine’s roadways. He championed laws regarding driving under suspension and he led the effort to ban texting while driving. But now, by advocating for hands-free phone use while driving, he and his fellow lawmakers have gone too far with their fondness for rule-writing and over-protective public safety laws.

With Independence Day approaching, I’m thinking about that most American of ideals: freedom. Last month I visited Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana, so I’ve also been reflecting on that. He was a different American than we are today. He lived in a free society. We don’t. When the government writes a new rule each day – to the point of dictating how we should conduct ourselves in our own vehicles – we’re no longer living in the same America envisioned and experienced by the Founders and freedom-preservers like Lincoln.

I’m going to guess all readers of this column have used a cellphone while driving. I’m also going to assume you’ve done that when conditions on the road allowed it. On a desolate stretch, I feel fine using my phone. When I’m in traffic, I don’t dare. Some do, however, and they can harm themselves and others. Rising numbers of cellphone-related accidents prove it.

I’m a conservative, not an anarchist, so I believe government should set rules for the roads. I’m all for laws against drunk driving. I’m all for banning texting. Those are black-and-white issues. But I do think a driver can choose when it’s safe to use a phone behind the wheel. Just as it’s OK to drink a small amount of alcohol and then drive, it’s OK to use a cellphone to make calls.

Diamond’s bill, which got bipartisan support and is awaiting the governor’s signature, strips drivers’ freedom to make their own judgment calls regarding safety. I understand outlawing texting and drunk driving, because they both totally impair driving ability, but holding a phone with your eyes on the road can be done safely. The alternative – stopping on the side of the road – sounds more dangerous.

Freedom is also dangerous. If you’re old enough, you remember when people didn’t bother with seatbelts. Now we’re breaking the law if we don’t buckle up. Yes, many people have perished because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt, but I remember when America allowed people to live a little on the edge because government leaders didn’t want to intrude any more than they needed to. Now the government intrudes everywhere and anywhere, and we applaud it, as if we have Stockholm syndrome, because we think it’ll improve health and safety.

But it’s a false feeling of safety. I’d rather live with the threats that come with real freedom than live a perfectly safe existence because I’m banned from activities that my government doesn’t trust me to take part in. Truth is, any activity can be unsafe. Boating, hiking, using a clothes dryer. Everything. Especially driving on Maine’s narrow, potholed and twisting roads with or without a cellphone in hand. Why doesn’t the state improve our roads instead? That would help much more.

Veterans remind us that “freedom isn’t free,” but the message I’d like to hear this Fourth of July is something Americans seem to have forgotten: Freedom isn’t safe; it’s inherently dangerous. How long before the government bans other dangerous pursuits we enjoy? How about those fireworks? Those are pretty dangerous, too. If citizens don’t have the common sense to know how to safely operate a phone while driving, can we really risk the public’s safety with such explosive devices?

Freedom is truly dangerous. I wish we had politicians who thought their constituents could handle it.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.