Friday, March 30, 2007

The nanny state

There is much kerfuffle out here in California over so-called "nanny state" legislation. Members of the state senate and assembly have come up with a number of fantastically intrusive proposals in recent months, including bans on

1) incandescent light bulbs;
2) spanking;
3) children under 4'9" in the front seat of the car;
4) children under 4'9" in the back seat of the car without a booster seat; and
5) smoking in the car while children are present.

The state senate is to hold hearings on smoking in cars in the very near future. Now, I do believe that smoking is a public health issue. Smoking is prohibited in a lot of places in California, including restaurants, hospital entrances, and Berkeley bus stops, although citizens like myself are left to enforce the latter with varying degrees of success. Several months ago, at the Hayward BART station, I had the following exchange with a woman who meandered into my personal space with a lit cigarette:

me: Excuse me, would you mind smoking somewhere else? This is a no-smoking zone.
smoker: What the hell? I just came over here. I can smoke if I want to.
me: I have been sitting here for a while, and I don't mind if you smoke elsewhere. Just not here.
woman: What the hell?
me: Thank you for respecting the needs of a person with asthma.
woman: Oh, respecting your needs? What about mine?
me: I don't mind if you smoke somewhere else. But it's against the law to smoke right here, and I have asthma. Thank you for respecting my health.
woman: [wandering away, talking loudly into her cell phone] Sorry, some white bitch says I can't smoke near her ass. Oh, wait, that white bitch don't HAVE no ass.

So yes, smoking is a public health issue. But there's something about this no-smoking-in-your-personal-vehicle thing that really gets to me. I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that one's car is an extension of one's residence. It's a private space. But the boundaries between private and public are a lot blurrier in the car because, unless your ride is pimped out with tinted windows (which are heavily regulated in this state anyway), everyone can see what you're doing, all the time.

If you smoke in the car with the windows up, your car smells like an ashtray. If you smoke in your house with the windows closed, your house smells like an ashtray. Anyone in a closed car will inhale second-hand smoke--but so can anyone in a closed room. Is it really worse to be in the car than in the house? I'd be willing to bet that kids spend a lot more time in houses full of second-hand smoke than in cars. So why target cars?

I think the answer is that it's a lot easier to enforce a ban on smoking in the car. The police can obtain immediate evidence that someone's smoking in the car--no need to justify a search warrant if you can see the crime in progress.

But you know, there are many other things in California which pose health hazards to children and other living things. There's pollution, crime, poverty, homelessness, abuse, disease, neonatal drug addiction, abysmal public education, gang violence... all of which are much harder to solve with a single piece of legislation.

If this bill passes, I hope someone will be able to sleep better, knowing that parents will be fined for lighting up while driving their children to school--in a district where less than 50% will receive a diploma and where gangs have more power than the principal.

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