Cedric Stephens | Ideas to inform the debate on the road traffic bill
"Jamaica's proposed Road Traffic Act is in line with most states in America," declares a June 24 article in this newspaper under the byline of Melinda Renuart.
The provisions in the bill, she writes "are tougher than what now obtains in Florida". Her commentary also asserts that comparisons "reveal that the bill, which is being debated in the House of Representatives, follows closely to some of the states where the legislation is toughest, including New York and New Jersey".
Toughness, by her definition, refers to the size of the fines imposed for rule violations.
The article said that the local law "bans drivers from using handheld electronic devices and any electronic visual device outside of GPS, radio and reversing cameras" and "proposes a fine of $10,000 for any breach of this rule".
The biggest groups of Jamaicans living in the United States reside in New York, Florida and New Jersey - in that order - according to Google.
Is the writer reflecting the views of US-based members of the Jamaican diaspora? Was she trying to influence local policymakers on the proposed legislation based primarily on what she argued now obtains in "most states in America" - to the exclusion of all other factors? Was she suggesting that Jamaica should pattern its law in relation to the use of cell phones while driving on what obtains in the state of Florida?
It would be interesting to learn precisely why Ms Renuart wrote her piece.
When the proposed Road Traffic Act is finally passed by the Jamaican Parliament, it will be nearly 20 years after New York became the first state to ban all drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.
It should also be borne in mind that Florida did not follow New York's lead. The Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, says "Driving and talking on a cell phone is perfectly legal". In January 2013, however, the state legislature there introduced measures that banned texting while driving.
Beginning with New Jersey on January 8, 2002, some 37 states and the District of Columbia implemented laws targeting teenage drivers. These laws, according to the Association for Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM), "generally prohibit any use of an electronic device/telecommunications device/cell phone, whether hands-free or handheld; the laws may be based on age (e.g., younger than 18) or licence stage (e.g., learner's permit or intermediate licence)."
Melinda's claim that the road traffic bill is "in line with most states in America" must be treated as her opinion and not as a fact. She cited not even one source to support her argument. The foundation for this criticism rests on information in AAAM's March 2014 report, 'Driver cell phone and texting ban in the US: evidence of effectiveness'.
Sadeiki Pitter, an intern for this newspaper writing on local driving practices and the use of electronic communication devices five years ago, 'Cell phone use: Ban them while driving', provided compelling evidence, based on personal observations, why local authorities should introduce measures to outlaw the use of cell phones while operating a motor vehicle.
Ms Renuart has offered not a shred of evidence that contradicts the contents of that article. She also appears not to have read any of the 622,000 items about 'Cell phone and driving Jamaica'.
Writing laws often takes a long time. The process can be very complicated. It cannot be left exclusively to elected representatives and political operatives. The experiences of other countries are one of the many factors that should be taken into account.
Foreign practices must, however, be adapted to suit the local conditions. Policymakers and their advisers should also understand the basic findings of the scientific and other studies that inform the decisions that are made elsewhere. It is never simply a matter of writing a law or regulation because of what obtains in another country.
One of the goals of laws like the proposed Road Traffic Act is to encourage certain types of behaviour on our roads and to penalise conducts that are not beneficial to the society. There are significant social and economic costs that are linked directly to improper driving behaviour on our roads. Cell phone use is only one. The use of alcohol and harmful drugs like ganja and the combined effects of these with the use of cell phones are among some of the risks facing motorists.
This article, plus the others that I have written under this broad theme Do politicians believe in science?, alcohol, drug use factors in motor vehicle crashes, and sober view on ganja and road use (courtesy of information supplied by Jamaica Automobile Association) were motivated by the desire to share information with readers and to inform public debate and decision-making on the proposed legislation.
- Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: email@example.com