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Scribner’s Error: Pushing the limits of reasonableness and prudence

Greg Froom//February 25, 2011

Scribner’s Error: Pushing the limits of reasonableness and prudence

Greg Froom//February 25, 2011

By GREGORY FROOM, Managing Editor

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“Reasonable and prudent.”

That was the daytime speed limit in Montana for a breezy four years after Congress in 1995 lifted its draconian, federally mandated limits, which first imposed the pokey “double-nickel” 55-mph limit that was later softened to 65.

Does that mean that there was an American Autobahn in Big Sky Country in the late ’90s? Not exactly.

There was a limit on Montana highways, but it just wasn’t an objective, precise, numeric figure. Instead it depended on the squishy subjectivity of whatever – and whomever – defined reasonableness and prudence.

Doesn’t that echo discussions from first-year torts class?

Apparently Montanans had as much trouble defining “reasonable and prudent” as a 1L, because the state’s Supreme Court struck down the amorphous limit in State v. Stanko, 974 P.2d 1132 (1998). In a case the dealt with a motorist who was ticketed for doing 85, the majority ruled the subjective speed limit was “void for vagueness on its face and in violation of the Due Process Clause of Article II, Section 17, of the Montana Constitution.”

The legislature promptly set things straight and enacted a clear-cut 75-mph limit. Auto enthusiasts across the country sighed.

So, why this lesson on the recent history of speed limits in a sparsely populated Western state? Because I think it can help inform the current debate on cell phone use behind the wheel here in North Carolina.

In an interview for a recent article about H. 31 and S. 36, bills that would outlaw cell phone use while driving, a source who opposed them advanced the view that it would be better to allow motorists to make their own rational decisions about their multi-tasking abilities.

That concept struck a chord with me, and my initial reaction – or, rather, that of my internal speed demon – was, “Great! Let’s also allow drivers to make their own rational decisions about how fast they drive.”

Not so, um, fast.

I’m not certain where I stand on the effort to outlaw cell phone use while driving. But letting motorists make reasonable and prudent decisions about whether they can balance piloting a vehicle with a telephone conversation – or eating, or drinking, or playing with a GPS, or dialing up some iTunes, or self-grooming, or trying to turn on the rear defroster in a rental car, etc. – smacks of Montana’s speed limits circa 1995-1999.

Could all of those distractions from what is likely our most dangerous daily task fit under a broad, somewhat subjective umbrella of reckless driving without having to specifically prohibit each activity? I’m not sure.

I appreciate the libertarian view that we don’t need the government getting in our cars and telling us what to do, or, in this case, what not to do. It reminds me of the debate over compulsory seat belt use about a quarter-century ago.

In the land of my upbringing – where the mountains of western Virginia merge into the mountains of West Virginia – many folks were aghast that the state would require them to buckle up.

Some thought seat belts were dangerous because it would be better to be “thrown clear of the wreck.” Although I’ve never heard of an explicit case outside of Hollywood where it’s better to be ejected from a vehicle, I’m sure it could happen. Others feared being trapped in a fiery crash by a jammed seat belt. I’m sure those people, using the same logic, drove around with their doors unlatched.

Those arguments aside, I think most of the opposition sprung from a distaste for a nanny government intruding into their vehicles and making them do something they never had.

With the exception of a few devout subversives like my uncle, who still drives unbelted despite a warning chime that goes off every 30 seconds and would drive me to insanity, most people now unquestioningly comply with seat belt laws.

In 25 years from now, would the same be true of an explicit ban on cell phone use and other driver distractions?

 Editor’s note: Froom is ­managing editor of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. He graduated from the UNC School of Law  in 2001 and is a member of the N.C. State Bar.

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