As scandals involving the Kennedys go, Maria Shriver's failure to use a hands-free cellphone device while driving is a bit, well, anticlimactic.
Sure, it's embarrassing that the celebrity gossip site TMZ released photos of California's first lady with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a cellphone on three separate occasions.
Sure, it's ironic that it was Shriver's own husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made the use of hand-held mobile phones illegal as of July 1, 2008.
Sure, there's a rather remarkable hubris to the fact that Tuesday, just minutes after the governor stated via Twitter that there would be "swift action" regarding his wife's violations, Shriver was caught in the act -- this time on video -- yet again (according to TMZ, she dropped the phone as soon as she saw the camera).
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 31 Editorial pages Desk 2 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
Maria Shriver: In Meghan Daum's column Thursday about Maria Shriver's cellphone use, the number of deaths associated with cellphone use by drivers was put at 26,000. The number is 2,600. Additionally, the article said fines for using cellphones while driving would be more if you were apprehended by the LAPD rather than the California Highway Patrol, with first tickets costing about $93 and a minimum of $20 respectively. No matter who issues such a ticket, the base fine is $20 and, with county and state assessments, the total minimum fine is currently $131.
But let's put this in perspective. Doesn't Shriver's crime rank somewhere between jaywalking and cutting the "do not remove" tag from your mattress?
Well, not really. Studies by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis have shown that cellphone-related driving accidents account for 26,000 deaths and 330,000 injuries a year. And who needs Harvard to confirm that cellphones turn good drivers into distracted ones and mediocre drivers into major road hazards.
Believe me, in the last year alone (in other words, after the hands-free law passed), I've seen left turns on red lights, 40-mile-per-hour driving in 70-mile-per-hour traffic, and the application of several layers of makeup while speeding along the 405 Freeway and having a phone therapy session with a shrink.
And if you think that's bad, you should see how other people drive.
Just kidding. I never wear "layers" of makeup. Besides, everyone knows it's nearly impossible to "speed" on the 405.
Seriously, though, has there ever been a law more akin to a flash-in-the-pan fashion trend (think body glitter) than California's hands-free driving law? Has there ever been a better example of people making a token effort to obey a law for about a month, only to have all but forgotten about it a year later?
Actually, yes. It's called the Wireless Communications Device Law. It's a companion to the hands-free law, and it forbids texting or e-mailing (including the mere reading of text messages and e-mails) while driving. It went into effect in California on Jan. 1. That means that between New Year's Day and, oh, Martin Luther King Day, some people didn't send e-mail and text messages while driving. By February, the law seemed less like a law and more like a diet you gradually cheat on until you scarcely remember you were on it in the first place. In fact, the term "stoplight" has acquired an alternate definition: "communication opportunity interlude device."
Some behaviors just can't be effectively legislated. In California, for instance, there are laws on the books prohibiting animals from mating within 1,500 feet of a school, place of worship or (and here's where it gets unreasonable) a tavern. It's also apparently against the law to peel an orange in a hotel room.
My theory about the hands-free driving law is that Californians obeyed it for a while because it required us to do something we love even more than driving: buy new stuff. A subset of that group actually installed speakerphones and earpiece holders in their cars and made use of them, until the batteries ran down and they couldn't find the chargers, or they took a call from their doctor about a nasty rash with other people in the car. At that point, they craved the sensation of phone-on-ear the way a baby craves a pacifier.
Maybe we need to be punished more often. Since July 2008, the California Highway Patrol has issued just 150,000 hands-free citations. While statistics from the LAPD aren't readily available, at least the fees are more impressive: Locally, it will cost you about $93 for the first ticket, compared with a minimum of $20 if the CHP nabs you. My barometer is more personal: In the last year, I don't know one person who had to pay up, or even got stopped, and I know a lot of scofflaws.
Certainly, Shriver shouldn't get a pass. By all means, make an example out of her. But it seems a bit excessive -- not to mention petty, hypocritical and dangerous -- for the paparazzi to be trailing her in hopes of catching her one-handed. Again.
Maybe the day will indeed come when talking on a phone while driving (hands-free or not) will be as socially taboo as not wearing a seat belt. But in the meantime, gloating over tabloid photos won't make the roads any safer.