Why is smoking behind the wheel still legal?

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May 2, 2013 by Nash Riggins

On Tuesday, Scottish MSP Jim Hume launched a proposal that aims to see smoking banned in all Scottish vehicles where children are present – and while the policy is a progressive step in the right direction, it also completely lacks ambition.

Mr Hume’s proposal – which was introduced on the same day that strict tobacco legislation came into effect throughout Scotland – is backed by several major charities, and undeniably has children’s best interests in mind. After all, British children breathing in other people’s cigarette smoke resulted in 300,000 GP visits and 9,500 hospital admissions in 2011 alone. As it happens, private vehicles are one of the final places in Scotland – and indeed, all of Britain – where children can still be legally exposed to second-hand smoke. It’s about time we put a stop to that.

That being said, the reason Mr Hume’s policy lacks ambition is because it only concerns itself with one of the many dangers associated with smoking whilst driving – subsequently failing to sink its teeth into the dire consequences faced by other drivers because some choose to smoke whilst on the road.

First and foremost, it’s worth noting that the absence of a universal vehicular smoking ban illustrates a major hypocritical oversight in the rules of the road. The Scottish government has already outlawed the use of hand-held phones or similar devices when driving a vehicle, and drivers can be fined for eating, drinking or applying makeup on the road if said activities clearly impair their driving. That said, what impairs your driving more: a casual phone conversation, or flaming bits of tobacco wedged in between your lips that are inching closer to your face with each passing second?

According to one study, the answer to this question is simple. It found that eating or smoking whilst driving is almost 20% more dangerous than talking on a mobile phone. Consequently, if this is the case, why has talking on the phone whilst driving been banned, yet smoking on the road is still technically legal?

What’s more, Mr Hume’s proposal as it currently stands cannot possibly be enforced effectively – that is to say, even when police see a driver smoking, they may not be able to see children in said car regardless of whether they’re actually present. Consequently, it will be at each officer’s discretion whether they’re keen to risk wasting valuable time by stopping a driver who may not even be breaking a law; therefore, it’s fair to say that many drivers will be able to continue smoking in cars with children and go unpunished. Meanwhile, were the Scottish government to simply outlaw smoking in all vehicles full stop, this just wouldn’t be the case – as it wouldn’t be left to an officer’s own discretion whether to stop a driver who’s smoking.

On the whole, MSP Hume’s proposal is excellent, and will help to defend the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of children every year. Consequently, he should be commended for bringing this discussion to the table and pursuing action. Yet the Scottish government needs to take a step back and consider how it could place more emphasis upon defending the wellbeing of every single person on the road. This starts by minimising needless distractions for the nation’s drivers – and smoking is undeniably one of those distractions. Here’s hoping that Scottish lawmakers take this into heavy consideration before Mr Hume’s proposal comes down to a vote.


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