Educate, don’t ticket, drivers with pets in lap


You’ve heard about the nanny state. How about the pet-sitter state?

An unnecessary if well-intentioned bill filed Wednesday in the N.C. General Assembly would outlaw driving with a live animal in your lap.

Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, introduced House Bill 73, which declares that letting Fido or Fluffy curl up on your legs while you’re behind the wheel “is a distraction that endangers the safety of the driver, any passengers in the vehicle, others traveling in the same vicinity and the animal.”

It’s common sense — or at least it ought to be — that a dog lunging toward the driver’s side window or a cat digging its claws in could be a driver distraction. Pets should be secured in carriers or crates while in the car for their own safety and comfort, not to mention their owners’.

But does every conceivable motorist faux pas need to be codified in state lawbooks?

In the name of preventing distracted driving, North Carolina passed a 2009 law authored by Pierce banning the use of cellphones to compose, send or read text messages and emails while operating a motor vehicle. The law includes exceptions for using GPS navigation systems and hands-free dialing technology.

Yet cellphones are hardly the only culprit vying for drivers’ divided attention.

The N.C. Department of Administration, a Cabinet-level agency, listed nine examples of risky behaviors in its safety newsletter published last April for Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Only two — texting and using a phone — are currently against the law.

Driver distractions that the state discourages but hasn’t seen fit to ban include eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading, watching a video, adjusting a radio, CD or digital music player and using a navigation system. There’s even a carve-out in the texting and driving law for GPS devices, the last item on the list.

Tooling around town with a pet in your lap is a bad idea, but we doubt it’s quantifiably more dangerous than doing your makeup in the mirror or chowing down on a sloppy sandwich while fighting traffic.

HB 73 would impose a $100 fine plus court costs for drivers caught with lapdogs or lap-cats. To us, that’s big government stepping in to regulate personal behavior without a compelling reason.

Education, not punishment, is the appropriate remedy for distracted driving. If the state didn’t believe it could encourage some level of voluntary compliance, the Department of Administration wouldn’t have included safety tips in its public newsletter.

A section in the Division of Motor Vehicles handbook and questions on the driving test about avoiding distractions would be a positive form of intervention. Writing more tickets is a bridge too far.

Rather than penalizing motorists for behavior that could contribute to theoretical future crashes, we’d rather see these distractions listed as aggravating factors for existing traffic charges that would increase penalties when they actually cause wrecks.

Government need not punish citizens for every personal risk they take. Instead, it should hold them accountable when the exercise of those risks causes harm to others.

The Wilson Times

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