Penalizing dummies: A new revenue resource

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By Sherry Robinson

   There oughta be a law…

    For all their convenience, there’s something about cell phones that brings out the stupidity in some people. Like the guy talking on his cell phone who rode his bike directly into the path of my car and came close to becoming a hood ornament.

Or the texting teenager who swerved into my lane on a busy street.

    Or the gal breaking up with her boyfriend while standing in line behind me at the drug store. (“Tell somebody who cares, Rocky! I need somebody who’s gonna be there for me, Rocky!”)

    Stupidity isn’t a good enough reason for a law. There’s safety: Sometimes the stupid take other people with them when they exit the gene pool.

Hospital emergency rooms have seen a sharp uptick in injuries from car crashes involving cell phones, not to mention the people who fell, collided with something or stepped into a busy street while texting.

Now in these cash strapped times, there’s another perfectly good reason to outlaw driving and cell phone use – revenue!

    Las Cruces last week began fining people who talk on their cell phones while driving. It’s $25 for the first offense and $50 for the second, a bargain compared to Albuquerque, where a first-time offense will set you back $100. Santa Fe, Española and Taos also have such ordinances.

    HB 10, proposed by the governor, would ban cell phone use by drivers except in emergencies, and in a particularly difficult legislative session for non-budget issues, it’s made steady progress. It would pre-empt local laws and raise the fine to $200.

Changes proposed in the bill’s wording by the New Mexico Municipal League would steer money back to local governments. This isn’t a trifling matter, when you consider that the House Speaker’s plan (HB 119) to ratchet up the gross receipts tax rate for four years would cap local-option taxes.

    Local governments receive three-quarters of their revenues by adding a bit to this tax. About one-third of cities, including Gallup and Española, and half the counties would find their hands tied in balancing their own budgets because they’ve already reached or passed the threshold proposed by the bill.

    So if HB 119 passes, local governments will be looking for other ways to raise revenue, and your teenagers can help.

    Lawmakers have previously tried to ban texting while driving. Last year two bills passed one legislative chamber but not the other. One, by Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, a Crownpoint Democrat, was inspired by her terrifying experiences riding with the teens in her family.

    There’s no shortage of studies about cell phone users being as dangerous as drunks on the road. Presently, six states ban hand-held cell phones, 21 states ban all cell phone use by novice drivers, and 19 states outlaw texting while driving. According to the Department of Transportation, cell phone use played a role in 27 percent of crashes with injuries in 2006; the figure rose to 31 percent in 2008.

    The state Department of Public Safety and SafeTeen New Mexico both support the ban. People who use cell phones and drive are four times more likely to crash, says SafeTeen President Thom Turbett (who is also an insurance professional).

    The usual objection is that the law would be difficult to enforce, and yet law-enforcement officials say the programs have been successful. Cops won’t catch everyone who’s talking or texting while driving, but they don’t catch everyone who’s speeding either. The threat is still a deterrent.

    Here’s how it works: The first teen caught will immediately text, like, a million of her friends that this is, like, SO unfair!!! Her friends will get the message. Now that’s good advertising.

    So Rocky, if you’re driving while your girlfriend dumps you over the phone, pull over, dude. It could be the law.

© New Mexico News Services 2010