California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this week signed into law a bill that bans smoking in cars with children present. The law provides for fines of up to $100 for anyone smoking in a car with a child under the age of 18. The legislation makes smoking in a car a secondary offense, meaning that the police cannot stop a motorist merely for violating this law. A motorist could only be charged if he or she were to be stopped for some other moving vehicle violation.
According to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune: "The bill's author, state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, ... said the new law will protect children against secondhand smoke. A Harvard School of Public Health report issued last year said secondhand smoke in cars can be up to 10 times more of a health risk than secondhand smoke in a home. 'Protecting the health of our children is among government's highest responsibilities,' Oropeza said in a statement. 'It is clear that increasing public awareness about the dangers of secondhand smoke is the right thing to do.'”
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This is nothing other than a feel-good law which allows legislators to feel good about having done something that they can claim will protect children from secondhand smoke, but without having to muster the courage to actually do something that will make a difference.
To me, this is an example of policy makers at their worst. It is an example of pure political rhetoric without any substance, of cowing down to political correctness without any semblance of principle or courage.
Let me make it clear from the outset that I oppose bans on smoking in cars with children, whether they would reduce secondhand smoke exposure among children in cars or not. I believe that such policies represent an undue intrusion into parental privacy and autonomy. I do not believe that government should interfere with parental decisions regarding health risks to which they expose their children unless these risks cause immediate and direct harm or represent risks so severe that they could be life-threatening.
But even if I were to agree that banning smoking in cars were a sound idea, there is absolutely no point in passing a law that makes this violation merely a secondary offense. What this does is make the law completely unenforceable. It basically sends a message to smokers that they need not pay attention to the law.
What California policy makers are saying is: "Secondhand smoke is such a severe health hazard to children that we must interfere with parental autonomy in order to protect children from even brief exposure; however, it is not such a severe health hazard that we actually want to be able to enforce the law and actually protect children from this exposure."
To rephrase that, what California policy makers are saying is: "We want to appear to really care about kids, so we've passed this law that will allow us to say that we care. However, we don't have the courage to do something that will actually protect kids. Making this a primary offense might lead to some political vulnerability, and we're not willing to face that in order to protect the health of our state's children. But we do want to be able to feel good about ourselves and be to be able to pretend that we have done something to help our kids."