Except among a handful of know-nothings who deny that humans have any effect whatsoever on their natural environment, there is virtually unanimous agreement that carbon emissions from automobiles is a major contributor to air pollution and global warming. The Argentine city of Córdoba , though, seems primed to tackle emissions as a public health crisis in a truly novel manner.
For the longest time, one of the Southern Cone’s most disturbing features was the elevated level of tobacco consumption. That’s changed in recent decades, thanks partly to progressive tobacco-control laws that prohibit or limit smoking in restaurants and other inappropriate areas, though Chile ’s statutes remain unfortunately weak. The latest in tobacco control, though, is a surprise, if not a shock – Córdoba appears ready to define smoking while driving as a moving violation .
If cited for a violation, Córdoba smokers could face a fine of up to 500 pesos (roughly US$110) and lose their driving privileges for up to 90 days; for repeat offenders, penalties would at least double. According to city legislator Javier Bee Sellares, who is proposing the measure, “This ordinance attempts to modify the habit of driving while smoking because in addition to affecting public health, it’s also a traffic safety risk.” Bee Sellares added that “the fact of smoking means that one hand is always occupied with the cigarette. This becomes a menace on wheels not just for the driver, who becomes distracted from essential maneuvers, but also everyone else, whether they be pedestrians or drivers.”
In principle, anything that reduces tobacco consumption is good, but I have some doubts about this particular measure. It appears to completely ignore other comparable distractions, such as eating, drinking (liquids other than alcohol, which is already proscribed), talking or texting on a cell phone (also proscribed), or fiddling with the radio or MP3 player. All of these would appear to be equally risky behaviors for anyone behind the wheel of a vehicle that weighs several tons, but the ordinance apparently does not address them.
The other issue is enforcement. While Argentine anti-tobacco legislation has been surprisingly effective, especially in Buenos Aires, to enforce a smoking while driving ordinance will require great professionalism on the part of a police force that, as often as not, simply doesn’t care much about moving violations. Rather, they prefer to lurk along the roadside, arbitrarily stopping motorists for minor equipment violations (such as malfunctioning turn signals or brake lights) that become opportunities for bribes. I’ve never had to deal with the Córdoba police in this regard, but it’s routine in the rest of the country.
Tango by the River
On Friday August 17, at 6 p.m., I will give a digital slide lecture on Buenos Aires  at Tango by the River  in Sacramento. Limited to a maximum of 50 people, the event will also include tango performances; admission costs $10, or $8 in advance. I have spoken here several times before, and we always sell out, so plan in advance. Signed copies of my Moon Handbooks on Argentina , Buenos Aires, Chile  and Patagonia  will be available at discount prices.