Wednesday, October 12, 2011

There ought to be a law

The man who bears a strong resemblance to a familiar Latin American dictator, emerges from the Presidential Palace in the fictional country of San Marcos to address his people:

"I am your new president." he says to an ecstatic crowd.

"From this day forward, the national language of San Marcos, will be Swedish."

"You will change your underwear once every hour, and you will wear your underwear on the outside, so we can check."

"All children in San Marcos under the age of 16, as of today will be 16."

I first saw Woody Allen's movie Bananas, not long after it was made forty years ago. That scene which still makes me chuckle after all these years, silly as it is, is useful in examining the nature of laws and how they are implemented.

I've been thinking about that subject since last week after watching the PBS documentary, Prohibition. I may not be the biggest Ken Burns fan, but I will say that he does a good job telling the story and presenting both sides. Viewers come away from the program understanding that although Prohibition in the United States was an unmitigated disaster, a total flop in terms of accomplishing its goals, there was a certain logic in the movement to ban booze. Its advocates, rather than being strictly religious zealots, actually came from diverse elements of society, and most of them had very good intentions. Prohibition in fact was seen as a progressive movement in many circles. Needless to say, alcohol when abused, causes tremendous suffering and hardship, not just to the abusers, but to those around them, as well as innocent bystanders. To solve the problem the theory went, why not make a law to get rid of the stuff altogether.

As everyone knows, banning alcohol did not end up solving the problem of alcohol abuse. While the total number of people who drank was slightly reduced during Prohibition, those who continued to imbibe, and there were a lot of them, drank more. The supply of alcohol may have been reduced, but the demand skyrocketed. As always, there were people who were more than happy to meet the demand, and they made a fortune selling illegal hootch. Organized crime flourished. Everything was turned upside down, industrious, honest people became criminals, and criminals became legitimate. Since a good portion of the country thought Prohibition was a joke, including most of the police, the law was unenforceable. Cynicism and disregard for law and law enforcement ruled the day, a situation that one could argue, exists to this day.

Arbitrary, frivolous laws like the proclamations of the fictional dictator of San Marcos, ill conceived, unenforceable laws, laws that that take away liberties that people once enjoyed, and laws that enforce one brand of morality over others, are counterproductive at best. Prohibition was all of that.

For much of the country, the era of Prohibition was a decade long drunken binge. It took the Great Depression, the repeal of the 18th Amendment, and ironically the restrictions that went along with legal booze, to sober the county up.

So have we learned anything from Prohibition? Well, people still flock to politicians who are more than willing to write laws that effect the behavior of other people. This "better life through legislation" mentality is not the domain of any one political ideology. Everyone likes freedom of speech, especially when it applies to themselves, but many wouldn't mind laws prohibiting certain speech of people with different opinions. So called "Pro Lifers" favor banning abortions but few seem prepared or interested to address the issue of how to enforce such a ban. Many folks support frivolous amendments to the constitution such as one defining marriage as a union specifically between a man and a woman, and an amendment that would ban flag burning.

And so it goes, it seems we just can't get enough of the idea that if we don't like something, make a law to get rid of it, and it will go away.

It just so happens that last week, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that in a very small way, illustrates this point. On the surface, it seemed like a good idea, create a law that would forbid talking or texting on a cellphone while riding a bicycle. Quite honestly, I'm perplexed by people who use cellphones while riding their bikes. I think to myself: "if that conversation is so important, can't they just stop riding for a minute?"

I was prepared to accept this new law until I heard its sponsor, alderman Margaret Laurino speak about it on the radio. The interviewer asked what inspired her to come up with the law. She said that one of her constituents brought it to her attention and then she noticed some cyclists texting while riding. That's it, no studies, no data, not even rumors suggesting that texting and biking contributes to accidents, just an alderman's hunch that's it's not a good idea, simple common sense she said.

Well OK I can live with that, safety's important and it's hard to argue that using a cellphone while riding a bike is not the safest thing to do. On the other hand, there are more dangerous things that cyclists do all the time such as listening to music through headphones. I've been involved in several incidents and one accident involving people wearing headphones who turned into me because they couldn't hear me coming from behind. The alderman said she hoped bikers would hear her message on the redio while they were riding, presumably through their headphones. Could she possibly be that clueless?

Then she added that since it's illegal to text while driving, she wanted to "level the playing field" between drivers and bicyclists. I never realized the playing field was stacked so highly in favor of bikes, frankly I thought it was the other way around.

Where do I begin with that one? First of all, stand next to a city street on a normal day and count how many cars pass by before you see a single bicycle. I'd say that a very conservative estimate in Chicago would be ten cars to one bike on a good day to ride a bike. On a less than perfect day, the ratio of drivers to cyclists would be far higher. An average car weighs 2,000 pounds. A bike, including its rider might weigh around 200 lbs. An average automobile engine is rated between 100 and 150 horsepower, while an elite cyclist can generate about 1/4 horsepower, but only for a short amount of time. Speed limits on streets where you are likely to find bicycles range between 25 and 35 mph. Drivers routinely drive faster than the speed limit while most cyclists struggle to reach half that. Of course cars are capable of speeds well in excess of 100 mph.

If leveling the playing field were really an issue, it stands to reason that motorists would be the ones asked to sacrifice, not bicyclists. There is absolutely no comparison between the numbers, the space they take up, the speed, weight and the power of automobiles compared to bicycles. That's not to mention the relative safety afforded to the passengers in a car versus a completely vulnerable cyclist.

I've said it before in this space and I'll say it again, it's ridiculous to assume that cyclists should assume the same responsibility on our streets that motorists do. Cars and their drivers are responsible for wreaking far more havoc than bicyclists. Our lawmakers need to do better than perpetuate this "level the playing field" nonsense.

Alderman Laurino, the daughter of the old Machine alderman Anthony Laurino, clearly doesn't have a clue about traffic safety, at least as it relates to bicycles. Her new law will probably not cause any harm, but I doubt that it will be taken seriously, let alone save lives. Do we seriously want our over-extended police to be on the lookout for the dreaded bicycle texter? Motorists continue to talk and text on cell phones while driving even though it's illegal in Chicago, and it's hard to imagine that cyclists, (I'm guessing this new law is directed primarily at renegade bike messengers), will be any different.

This issue is certainly not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I haven't heard any opposition to it nor do I expect to see a phalanx of cyclists riding to the Daley Center, holding hands singing, or more appropriately texting "We Shall Not be Moved." But the law is unnecessary, unenforceable and arbitrary. There are many other dangerous things we could do on our bikes that are perfectly legal. How about a law banning juggling while riding a bike?

One of Ken Burns' trademarks is his use of the "talking head", the authority who appears on camera to help move the story along. Of all the talking heads in each documentary, there's usually one who I call the go to guy, the most colorful character, the expert of experts who comes up with the most memorable lines and often has the last word in each episode. Civil War historian Shelby Foote served that purpose as did baseball great Buck O'Neil in previous Burns' productions. In Prohibition the capo di tutti capi was New York journalist Pete Hamill. In his closing words of the film, Hamill spoke of the futility of laws that take things away from people. He said: "I haven't had a drink in thirty years and don't care if I have another one for as long as I live. But if the government were to tell me tomorrow: 'you can't have a drink', I'd head straight to the bar and order up a big martini."

That pretty much sums up my feeling about this new law. The thought never occurred to me to text while riding a bike, until now. That all has changed. In fact at this minute, as I write this post on my smart phone, I'm riding my bike down Michigan Avenue, with Pete Seeger blasting on my iPod.

So arrest me.

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