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Fed Highway Mandates Challenge WY Freedoms

by Bill Sniffin

Newcomers might find this hard to believe, but a common form of measurement a few decades ago when it came to traveling across Wyoming’s long distances was: “How many beers does it take to get to there?”

For decades, our state did not have open-container laws. It was generally accepted that most folks traveled long distances with a cooler full of beer to refresh them on their trips. Thankfully, this culture of combining alcohol with travel has virtually disappeared. The toll of killed and injured people left in its wake enlightened our lawmakers to pass better public-safety laws.

Or did it? The main reason Wyoming adopted such laws is that the federal government forced us to either conform or lose out on highway funding. But the purpose of this column is not to discuss the dangers of drinking and driving. It concerns new federal attempts to curb other forms of distractions while driving. Most Wyoming folks will not like these new ideas, either.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to force carmakers to build into cars devices that will prevent you from using your cellphones for calls or texts while your vehicle is moving.

My 2007 Denali has a built-in cell phone system that General Motors installed at the factory to make it easier for me to make phone calls while driving. What a difference a few years can make. Another late-model car we formerly owned had a Bluetooth connection, which played my cellphone’s call through the car’s audio system, making it easier for hands-free calls.

Wyoming residents drive more miles per year per capita than folks in any other state. We make phone calls when we drive. We eat when we drive. Many used to, even, drink beer while they drove.

A favorite motto for Wyoming is that is a moderately sized city with extremely long streets. Really. Long. Streets.

A typical Wyoming meeting is you drive three hours, meet for an hour, shop for an hour, have lunch and drive three hours home. The numbers of time that has happened in my Wyoming business career would measure in the hundreds.

Maybe it would be in the thousands if we added all the sports events from one end of the state to the other over a 20-year time period when our four kids were active in every sport imaginable from swimming to basketball to skiing to baseball.

We often head to Rawlins en route to Laramie, Cheyenne or Denver. We always count the number of cars we meet on the 81-mile trip from Lander to Muddy Gap. One time, it was as few as three. Our open roads are way, way more open than in most parts of the country.

Historically, back when I owned several businesses, I could get a lot of work done while traveling. My cellphone was indispensable. Wyoming is just as famous for its black holes of no-cell service but I still managed to get a lot of calls made. The inspiration for that old Verizon commercial of “Can you hear me now,” I assert, was originally from a desperate Wyoming person whose call was just dropped.

It might also be interesting to point out that Verizon says it spent $27 million in Wyoming last year upgrading its services. Union Telephone spent $11 million. And AT&T just announced it spent $8 million. These are for towers being built all across our vast landscape. For what purpose if not so people can make phone calls while driving down the road?

Federal intervention into our state desires did not start with the aforementioned open-container laws or the soon-to-be promoted restriction on calling. Our state leaders fought valiantly against the feds when the state’s speed limit was dropped from 70 mph to 55 mph back in 1974. And we did not have cellphones back then to while away the time while traveling at a snail’s pace.

Prior to that time, Wyoming’s leaders instituted a program where our highway lines were yellow. Why? Because when snow and ice covered our roads, you could still make out the centerlines.

Wyoming lost those battles.

The feds threatened cutting off funding for our highways and we magically changed our minds.

With this ban on calling and driving coming, it will be interesting to see how our state residents react.

Our state leaders (most are gray haired) saw few problems with banning texting and driving in 2010 since most of them rarely did it. I do not like to text, but am forced to occasionally by my children and grandchildren. However, I’d never engage in the practice behind the steering wheel of a moving vehicle.

But a ban on cellphone use while driving? That would be an outrage out here in the outback.

 Edited and reprinted by express permission of Bill Sniffin (http://www.billsniffin.com). Mr. Sniffin is a 43-year-resident of Wyoming. He and his wife had ownership interests in 20 media properties in four states, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and Hawaii. He currently authors a weekly syndicated newspaper column.

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