States Take Aim at Driving Under the Influence of TV

 

Anna Marie Hartman, statehouse reporter for WMC-TV in Memphis, Tenn., was stopped at a red light last year when she noticed two small television screens mounted inside the car ahead.

"The video they were playing was pornographic. I was with a friend of mine and, after we got over the initial Ewwwwww' reaction, my next thought was, Can they DO that?'" Hartman said.

What's becoming known as "drive-by porn" is titillating the interest of a few state lawmakers in Tennessee and Louisiana who seek to ban it. But so far, no state has regulated what can be watched inside vehicles -- only who can watch.

Concerned about drivers already distracted while eating, smoking or talking on cell phones, 38 states now prohibit drivers from watching TV mostly by controlling the location of video monitors inside vehicles.

Twenty-one states prohibit TV screens from being visible to the driver. The other 17 specify that monitors be located behind the driver's seat. At least a dozen states exempt in-dash screens for maps and driving directions, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

A long way from the cup holder, video and DVD players are proliferating as a luxury vehicle accessory and a necessity for some parents on long road trips.

Many vehicles sold in the United States now come equipped with navigational systems, and technology allows tricking the system into displaying a movie or television. Purchases of vehicle video systems have quadrupled since 1999, and the market is expected to grow from $625 million in 2002 to more than $1.25 billion by 2006, according to Venture Development Corp., a Natick, Mass., technology market research firm.

About 3.5 percent of U.S. drivers were involved in a crash in the past five years that they attribute to being distracted, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

After WMC-TV's Hartman aired a story about in-car DVD players and several constituents complained about seeing pornography through car windows on Tennessee roads, Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, proposed banning the display of sexually explicit movies in cars.

The Tennessee House is expected to consider the ban this week; the measure passed the Senate last year. Norris said his bill amends a statute upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court that prohibits patently offensive or obscene bumper stickers.

Louisiana is considering a similar bill introduced by state Rep. Mickey Guillory, D-Eunice, who said his drive-by porn bill "has to do with family values and community values and common decency." Oklahoma lawmakers this month rejected a measure that would have prevented the showing of X-rated films in cars if the screen can be seen from other vehicles.

The Nashville City Paper editorialized in support of Norris' ban: "Imagine yourself in gridlock traffic with a 5-year-old in the backseat asking, What's that, mommy?' as he gazes at the next car's DVD player. We think banning X-rated movies in automobiles is a no-brainer."

But Chris Rose, columnist for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, called the censorship effort "an empty gesture in the name of family values and a misguided effort to stop the two people in Louisiana who actually drive their cars with porn on."

Both the Tennessee and Louisiana proposals have raised First Amendment concerns about free speech protection, with the ACLU and the Motion Picture Association of America criticizing the wording of Tennessee's ban as too vague.

Many states already have laws against public display of pornography. But there is legal debate about whether the interior of one's private car amounts to a public display. Still, a Clifton Park, N.Y., man was charged in February with playing an X-rated movie in his Mercedes. Police allege the man publicly displayed offensive sexual material and illegally operated an in-car screen in the driver's view.

 
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