If Texting-While-Driving Ban Fails, Blame Albany’s “Democracy of One”

silver.jpgSheldon Silver. Photo: Daily News.

Last week Streetsblog followed up on the stalled progress of a statewide texting-while-driving ban, a bill that appears to be going nowhere even though almost everyone on the Assembly transportation committee supports it, according to Brooklyn representative Felix Ortiz.

When we contacted Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office, a spokesperson told us that it’s up to the committee chair to move the bill forward. That would be Rochester Democrat David Gantt. But why should one person have such power when the overwhelming majority of his members disagree? And is Gantt really the guy making that call — or is it Sheldon Silver?

To get a sense of the dynamics at work here, Streetsblog called Laura Seago, a researcher at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of the aptly titled report on Albany dysfunction, "Still Broken" [PDF].

"I would be surprised if Sheldon Silver wasn’t involved," Seago said of the texting ban. "This is
something we see all the time, unfortunately, which is that the speaker
controls everything that comes to the floor."

While Gantt makes a convenient target, and it’s conceivable, in Seago’s words, that he was "acting freelance" on this one, the fact remains that Silver could easily move the texting ban forward if he chose to do so.

In a legislature that functions democratically, the members of the transportation committee could also override the objections of their chair or the leader of their chamber. But that’s not how things work in Albany.

"Most state legislatures make committees the place where legislation is
robustly debated and made," said Seago. Next door in Connecticut, she notes, bills introduced in committee are required to have a hearing and a vote,
but in New York, "we just don’t have that." Here, the leaders of each legislative chamber — Sheldon Silver in the Assembly, Malcolm Smith in the State Senate — maintain control over the committee process, and there’s no viable way for the rank-and-file to force a vote on a bill.

The Assembly, says Seago, is a "democracy of one."

If you’re wondering why Sheldon Silver would choose to block a popular measure to reduce the public safety risk posed by distracted drivers, it may be instructive to look at the long battle to ban driving while talking on a cell phone. That fight lasted several years, and when the state legislature finally passed a bill, in 2001, it did not include any restrictions on hands-free cell phones — to the delight of the telecom industry and its lobbyists in Albany, and despite studies showing that hands-free phone calls pose just as big a risk as those on handsets.

  • Welcome to the State of New York, where democracy crawled away to die, and no one has even bothered to bury the corpse.

  • Classic reverse Houdini.

  • Glenn

    I like that CT rule that all intros must eventually be voted on. Legislators are elected by the public to take stands on issues of the day, not avoid them until last minute possible.

    In NY, the rules for any given piece of legislation depend on who is proposing the legislation, who is lobbying on each side and whether or not it absolutely HAS to be dealt with or some part of government people care about may actually cease to function.

  • Just to clarify, the Assembly does have a “Form 99” process that allows sponsors to petition the committee chair to act on their bill, but this only requires a vote at some time within the two-year session, and in practice, and the committee’s “action” can still be to hold the bill.

  • So, everyone, are we calling and emailing our Assembly reps and Gantt about this?

  • Not in the least bit sold that “democracy” is actually what you people want.

    As soon as it’s a legislature full of people trying to vote through a law curtailing _your_ freedoms, and they’re blocked by a single man via procedural horseplay, you’ll be thanking him for his service.

    Majority rule is mob rule. That’s why slowing down their legislatures is so important. cf Federalist 51 for indirect applications.

    There are plenty of great arguments to be made against the texting ban, and plenty of great arguments to be made against Silver and Gantt. These, I don’t think are them.

    Maybe we should start with why Albany has any jurisdiction over New York City traffic laws altogether? That, I think, is completely indefensible.

    (The path out of here is through secession, friends.)

  • I’m genuinely curious: what arguments can be made against the texting ban? Are there problems with the bill itself or with the general idea of banning texting? Because if it’s the latter, I wonder if people would endorse using a laptop or programming a VCR while driving? If there are real problems with the wording of the bill, what are those issues?

  • To one who believes that laws induce safety, that charges should be stacked as if the first were insufficient, that police have the public interest at heart, that nothing has unintended consequences, and that government is his friend, no arguments can be made against the texting ban.

    I am unfortunately certain that that person is most of Streetsblog’s audience.

  • Lazybones.

    Traffic law that depends on police enforcement is of particularly limited efficacy in New York. Violations tend not to be taken seriously as the victims are theoretical and we are collectively and individually bad at risk calculation. Laws with no tangible, immediate consequence quickly fall into selective enforcement and corruption. The powerful will continue to engage in the dangerous activity with impunity and even popular support, while the intended effect on the hoi drivoi is muted by their understanding that even if they are stopped for a violation there is a decent chance of being forgiven with a warning. But when they lose it’s like the lottery in reverse, not so great for the poor or general fairness. All told, just about any other measure to improve public safety is better than depending on subjective police enforcement.

    HOWEVER, the affected activity of frequent driving is one that many Streetsblog readers have given up. This accounts for the strong support of the ban, not a particular indifference to The Federalist Papers. If you see city driving as a special and serious burden rather than a daily routine, specific legislative restrictions on that activity are justified. Of course no one should be using a phone, period, while driving. The human cost of driving is much too high as it is, particularly to victims that do not even opt-in to the activity. From a pedestrian perspective any law that increases the gravity of driving—that reminds motorists that they are not on a couch but operating a deadly vehicle—is a good one.

    So I support ‘texting’ ban, but I also agree that it could be better dealt with locally than statewide. It is not my business if people on Long Island want to play bumper cars while texting. If they want some subsidy for a train line or complete streets I’m a generous guy, but otherwise they can crash Escalades into each other while texting until the oil runs out for all I care. (Leaving aside the merits and necessity of a national carbon tax.) Unfortunately we’re all in the same legislative boat, and we in NYC have to fight for a texting ban that makes sense for our pedestrian butts while they fight to keep their multitasking crashstyle. And then of course Gant is the same guy that shot down automatic (aka fair) enforcement for NYC bus lanes. Whether we’re talking about effective, local, and incorruptible law or flimsy showpieces like this, Gant is on the wrong side for New York transportation and deserves all the antipathy Streetsblog sends his way.

  • Rosa

    The ban makes sense the accident statistics associated with driving while texting are astounding. This is a huge public health risk, and can lead to serious accidents: http://www.newsy.com/videos/texting_and_driving_your_right_or_a_new_way_to_crash

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