Shut Up and Drive: Congress Passes Nationwide Law to Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving

In a nutshell: Driving while talking can result in a fine and forfeiture of your cell phone.

For those who use driving time to catch up with friends, conduct teleconferences, and manage their bank accounts, the cell phone ban may be seen as a denial of rights. However, if you've been suppressing urges to "go postal" on people who talk on their cell phones while driving, or worried that that they're about to rear-end you while you're stuck in front of them, this law may be good news for you.

In a last-minute earmark addendum to an obscure environmental bill funding Daylight Savings Time behavior-modification training for roosters and dairy animals on farms that receive federal funding, the U.S. Congress has mandated a complete prohibition against the use of cell phones by any driver, excepting police and other first-responders, on any public road or other driving area, effective at 11:59PM,March 31, 2008.

The penalty for being caught, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration source (who asked for anonymity), includes a $200 fine, which will be given to a designated charity fund, and confiscation of the phone and any associated accessories, e.g., Bluetooth headset and charging cord, which will be donated to homeless and women's shelters.

"If you plan to flout this law, I suggest buying a cheaper phone," the NHTSA official advised. "We'll take that iPhone or BlackBerry. And make sure you've synced your address book before you start driving, if you don't want to also lose your data."

Some restrictions on the use of cell phones are currently in effect in nearly 30 states in the U.S (see Cell Phone Driving Laws by State) and in many other countries (see Countries That Ban Cell Phones While Driving).

However, the new law, dubbed "Shut Up And Drive," is the most extreme one to date. "Most of the current legislation restricts drivers to hands-free devices. This one says, 'you can't use the phone at all,'" complained a driver in Hackensack, N.J., who wishes to remain anonymous. "How do they expect us to keep up with things?"

"What if we see an accident or other emergency?" asked an independent package delivery person in Los Angeles. "I've got a business to run, I can't be pulling over and stopping each time I have to make a call."

"This is different from chatting with someone in the passenger seat, yelling at your kids who are in the backseat, or telling your dog to get down from the rear window," commented the NHTSA official.

Officials at the National Center for Talking and Messaging expressed concern that the "Shut Up and Drive" mandate is another step in a slippery slope towards government over-regulation of speech and communication. "What's next?" asked Al Waisonacal, Chief Legal Counselor at the NCFTaM. "No more CB radio? And what about the voice-oriented navigation systems—does the government mean drivers can't interact with those either?"

"That's a great suggestion," the NHTSA responded. "We're penciling those amendments in right now. And while we're at it, we're going to forbid those new 'tell your sound system what to do' features."

"That's just great," NCFTaM's Waisonacal replied. "What about all the drivers who aren't talking on a phone, but are doing other equally or more dangerous stuff, like drinking hot coffee, eating, combing their hair, shaving, putting on make-up, smoking, or flossing their teeth?"

"You've got a point there," said the NHTSA. "Thanks for the suggestions, we're adding those in. Oh yeah, we're also going to ban IMing and SMSing and texting and all those other talk-like things."

To help enforce the new "Shut Up And Drive" legislation, the NHTSA will be requiring auto manufacturers to incorporate new audio detection modules into steering wheels that will detect if the driver is on a call. If such activity is detected, the device will slow the vehicle until it can shut it down completely. "How will it know the difference between whether I'm talking, or singing along with the radio?" demands NCFTaM's Waisonacal.

"The RIAA has decided that would be illegal anyway, so we're partnering with them," responded the NHTSA.

"What about humming or whistling?"

"Like that new law says, 'Shut Up and Drive.'"

According to the NHTSA, the new legislation will apply not only to federal, state, county and city roads, but also to parking lots, driveways, and bumper cars. "And next, we're going after joggers, bicyclists, and pedestrians in public places including streets and stores," said the agency. "If you want to talk, don't move."

Daniel P. Dern has been writing humorously and seriously about technology for ComputerWorld and other publications for a long while, including his classic If You've Been Good, Press One.

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