A ban’s easy, enforcing is harder

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 08:31 AM

Chapel Hill Town Council last week wrestled with two tricky questions of regulating our behavior.

On the one hand, proponents believe the regulations are appropriate for public health and safety. Opponents see them as intrusive and, in an argument that often casts a shadow over such measures, likely to be unenforced or even unenforceable. Such laws and regulations do indeed run the risk of increasing public skepticism – and widespread, casual defiance.

Think Prohibition.

In a decisive move with admittedly rather limited scope the Town Council Monday passed an ordinance prohibiting smoking in town vehicles. 

You might be tempted to ask – what, that wasn’t already prohibited? In 2013? In fact, it already is against the law to light up in many town vehicles, including those such as buses in which the general public ride.

Now, though, even a couple employees in an official car going about their business will be prohibited from smoking. Presumably, a solo driver would face the same proscription, if with even a smaller chance of being detected.

The rule makes sense. It’s a logical extension of widespread prohibition against smoking in the workplace. A hapless nonsmoker trapped in a sedan with a smoker would seem to be the worst case of suffering second-hand smoke on your job.

But Councilman Matt Czajkowski, whose view of government’s proper scope is often a counterweight to his more expansive colleagues, raised a concern even as he supported the new ordinance.

“We continue to pile up ordinances with criminal consequences that nobody for one second expects the police to enforce,” Czajkowski said. “History is indisputable in that the more laws you make that everybody expects won’t be enforced, the more you create a culture of scofflaws.”

The same arguments could easily be advanced against the council’s unusually stringent ban on cell phones. The council has put on hold briefly a decision on how to proceed with that law, anticipating a continuing legal challenge even though the state Court of Appeals upheld the law earlier this month.

The council has heard push-back especially on the ban on hands-free devices. Enforcement of that ban has always seemed especially problematic – there’s little visible evidence of the infraction. It would be a secondary offense, meaning that you’d have to be cited for something else for an officer to add mobile talking to your charges.

In the end, it’s hard to argue against the benefits of reminding folks, especially those who are inclined to obey the rules even when no one’s looking (most of us, most of the time) of the dangers of distracted driving.

But as in the no-smoking-alone-in-the car, the effort to stamp out a practice increasingly prevalent, despite evidence of its risks, raises genuine questions about the scope of the regulatory environment.