Road Rash

Maryland Lawmakers Take The Wheel To Approve Speed Cameras And Prohibit Driving While Texting, But The Moves Reek Of Dishonesty, Political Posturing

April 21, 2009|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Compared with the precedent-setting government changes occurring in Washington, this year's Maryland General Assembly regular session in Annapolis was rather sleepy.

Don't get me wrong: The state faces serious, structural deficit issues, and whatever funds the Obama administration provides are a useful but ultimately temporary solution. But when speed cameras and driving while texting emerge as two of the more controversial issues of the legislative the session, you wonder if Marylanders are somehow living in a bubble.

Both issues have a common element, of course: They are of interest to motorists - which is to say, most taxpayers. They are "easy issues," because voters have ready opinions and often direct, personal experiences to bring to the debate. If you drive a car, you have strong feelings about being ticketed for speeding or texting. Anyone who doubts the political reach of motoring issues should recall (so to speak) California Gov. Gray Davis, who was yanked from office in the middle of his term after watching a dispute over his state's car tax spin quickly out of control.

The truth about speed cameras is that they are designed to generate revenue. If a driver can admit the violation and pay the fine with no points on his or her license, there's clearly no intent to sort out bad drivers from good ones. Although Maryland will use them only near construction sites and schools, one senses a camel's nose poking inside the tent.

Frankly, what's really happening here is an attempt to tax people who are unfamiliar with the location of the cameras, instead of just raising taxes in a more direct way. As I have argued in this space before, modern voters want more spending but insist on never paying higher income or property taxes (a consequence of the anti-tax revolt that began in California in the mid-1960s, was ratcheted up during Ronald Reagan's presidency and grew to new heights of fiscal irresponsibility during George W. Bush's and, yes, Barack Obama's administrations).

Thus, new and creative forms of taxation must be invented: Sin taxes on junk food, users fees on this or that, new lotteries and slots legalization are all an exercise in deluding ourselves into thinking we can somehow mask taxes or foist them on somebody else. I'm wary of proposals to replace the tax code wholesale with a flat income tax or a universal consumption tax. But when the conservatives who support these alternatives complain that the complexities of the tax code are a form of deceit by politicians and self-deceit by voters, they are right.

As for driving while texting (DWT), there is a heavy whiff of political bullying - not to mention political posturing for the coming 2010 state election cycle - in the new law banning the practice. The target of that bullying is younger drivers.

The death of a young woman accelerated the movement to ban DWT, and her death is undoubtedly tragic. But if distracted driving is really the problem here, let's see state legislators ban eating, drinking and even talking on the phone with hands-free devices. After all, a study by the American Automobile Association found that the use of hands-free devices made using the phone while driving no safer; the problem is the distraction of talking, not the removing of one hand on the wheel to do so.

But thousands more drivers (read: voters) talk than text. And the productivity of American business depends upon people working from their cars, especially when growing gridlock forces worker-drivers to spend more time trapped in traffic.

What's infuriating is that both of these new laws are defended as measures to promote safety on our roadways. But if safety were the primary concern, rather than revenue generation or political posturing, Maryland politicians would go full bore and assign points for speed camera busts and ban everything done while driving except, well, driving.

Happy motoring, folks.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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