Friday, June 15, 2007

For consistency's sake

While this is old news, Washington passed a new law during this year's legislative session that will subject drivers talking on a cell phone to a fine of $101. Generally, I think that the government oversteps its bounds when it restricts the freedom of individuals. However, enacting such legislation is more than justified when it involves what may be an inherently dangerous activity that poses risks to other individuals. I'm not going to discuss the merits of the law and will assume that statistics concerning the safety concerns of cell phone usage are accurate. My general complaint about legislation is the arbitrariness and inconsistency of the law. While driving and talking on a cell phone will be against the law starting next summer, driving while using a hands free device will remain legal. This was an arbitrary decision.

Numerous studies have shown that, contrary to intuitive belief, using a hands free device provides little, if any, safety benefit. While a quick Google search has shown one study coming to the opposite conclusion, that study was also funded by GM, the owner of OnStar. This past winter I was in the Law and Legislative Process seminar in Olympia and know for a fact that the legislature was specifically confronted with testimony concerning these claims. They nevertheless decided to enact the bill. If they truly wanted to fix the problems and make our roads safer, they did not go about it properly. Instead they chose to remain inconsistent.

There are several tenants of the legislative process that should remain sacrosanct: promulgation, clarity, and consistency (feel free to add more as this is only a sampling). It is unjust to punish an individual for violating a law that was not in existence at the time of his actions. It is equally inequitable to punish a person for an activity while an equivalent activity goes unpunished. The latter principle is known as the doctrine of horizontal equity: those in like positions should be treated similarly. While discussion of horizontal equity is prevalent in debates on tax policy, this new law demonstrates its applicability elsewhere. The justice system should remain consistent in its punishment and the legislature should not make arbitrary laws that two like activities differently.

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