Thursday, February 18, 1999

It's impossible to outlaw sheer stupidity

The Cincinnati Enquirer


        Can we really protect the world's nitwits? Or, better, protect the world from nitwits? Lord knows we try.

        A sign at the gas pump warns us not to breathe the fumes. My laundry detergent instructions tell me not to eat it, and if I'm overcome by a desire for a soap snack, I am told to drink a glass of water or milk.

        If I'm not careful with my flea spray, I guess I could end up in prison: “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling,” warns a can of Vet Kem. I don't even want to know what nitwit is responsible for this label. What do you suppose he did? Spray it on a postal worker? Use it to rob a bank?

        We know, of course, why our fast-food coffee cups come labeled with HOT! HOT! HOT! warnings. A LAWSUIT! LAWSUIT! LAWSUIT!

Cold? Take my coat
        In Beverly Hills, conspicuous consumption capital of the Planet Earth, there is a referendum on the May ballot to require that furs bear a warning label: “This product is made with fur from animals that may have been killed by electrocution, gassing, neck-breaking, poisoning, clubbing, stomping or drowning.”

        Apparently, some legislator thinks people in ZIP code 90210 would otherwise believe that the pelts come from volunteers. If this passes, I hate to think about what it bodes for the menus at Spago and Morton's. Movie stars might be notified that chickens and cows are not there because they carried donor cards in their wallets.

        Up the road in San Francisco, more than 30 self-described “fat rebels” are protesting another kind of label in an ad for a fitness center. The offending billboard pictures a space alien with this caption: “When they come, they will eat the fat ones first.”

        Both sides of the issue are simply indulging in their constitutional right to express an opinion. We do not discriminate against stupidity. Take, for instance, the things some people believe they need to share with fellow motorists.

        Driving in traffic, I came up behind a van with a sign in the window, “Caution, Show Dogs.” Maybe otherwise they think we'd say, “Hey, there's no sign on that car. It must just be full of people. Or ordinary dogs. Let's ram 'em.”

        If drivers would post their cell phone numbers on their bumpers, we could give them a jingle to find out whether they are carrying precious cargo before we sideswipe them. By next year, about 80 million people will be using cell phones in the United States. And 85 percent of those who have them now report that they use them while driving.

A Limbaugh-free zone?
        Some people believe that this poses a greater hazard than show dogs or flea spray. Illinois and Maryland lawmakers are considering restricting the use of car phones. So far, 18 other states have rejected similar laws.

        Any sensible person knows phones can be a distraction. So can Rush Limbaugh. So can a toddler demanding to be liberated from her car seat. So can a back-seat driver.

        We don't have a study that tells us just how distracting any of those things might be. But we know the number of cell phones in the United States grew 1,685 percent from 1986 to 1995. During that same time, auto accidents fell 17 percent and fatalities dropped 26 percent. Of course, we also have air bags and seat belts and better emergency services.

        And people with cell phones who report accidents faster.

        Maybe there's a simple solution. In addition to a vision test when you renew your driver's license, there could be a short Q&A:

        “Have you ever applied makeup or shaved while driving?

        “Have you ever read a newspaper while operating a motor vehicle?”

        “Have you ever juggled a Big Mac, cola and fries in the speed lane?”

        “Have you ever tried to dial your cell phone while changing lanes?”

        Those who answer yes would be issued mandatory warning labels: “Caution: Nitwit On Board.”

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at