Distracted driving

Strange as it may sound, only a few years ago Marylanders were heatedly debating whether to ban drivers from text-messaging on their cell phones while behind the wheel. The dangers of "distracted driving" were an illusion, opponents claimed, manufactured by a nanny-state government to justify unwarranted intrusions on personal liberty.

Never mind that texting while driving was already known to cause thousands of traffic fatalities nationally every year, or that researchers had found that texting drivers' ability to concentrate on the road was about the same as if they had imbibed four or five drinks.

Today, few in Maryland would any more argue that people have a right to text behind the wheel than that drunks should be given car keys. It's not a matter of personal liberty but of safety for the rest of the motoring public (and pedestrians and cyclists) because by now it's clear to everyone that drivers who tool around with cell phones plastered to one ear are an accident waiting to happen.

Both chambers of the legislature have recognized that by passing similar bills to strengthen the law against cell phone use by drivers unless they employ a hands-free device, and they did so overwhelmingly. In a sign of how quickly attitudes about distracted driving have changed, it took more than a decade of attempts to get the state's current cell phone law enacted, but making it tougher it has proved broadly popular; the bill passed 41-6 in the Senate and 106-29 in the House. Once the two chambers work out a few minor differences, the governor is expected to sign the measure into law, as he should.

Maryland became one of the first states to prohibit texting while driving, in 2009, and the following year it made talking on a hand-held phone behind the wheel a secondary offense — meaning an officer can stop a driver's vehicle and issue a ticket only if he sees another offense being committed, such as speeding or running a red light.

The measures now under consideration would make driving and talking on a hand-held phone a primary offense for which drivers could be stopped regardless of whether any other laws were broken; the Senate version would also raise the fines for an infraction from $40 to $75 for a first offense. The new legislation would put Maryland in line with the 11 other states and the District of Columbia that have laws banning the use of hand-held phones by drivers — all the rest either consider it a primary offense or will shortly.

The evidence is overwhelming that such laws save lives. The National Safety Council reported that in 2011, 23 percent of all traffic crashes that year, or 1.3 million accidents, involved drivers using cell phones. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,331 people were killed in those crashes and another 387,000 were injured. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which is leading efforts against distracted driving, estimates that drivers are four times more likely to get into an accident while driving and talking on the phone and 23 times more likely if they drive and text.

These statistics suggest that distracted driving is a major killer, not simply an expression of an imagined right to behave foolishly. Getting a call in the car that requires searching around for the phone, and turning it on forces drivers to take their eyes, and minds, off the road. Trying to follow a road map in unfamiliar surroundings, or dash off a text message while waiting at a stoplight, puts tremendous strain on drivers' ability to judge traffic conditions, and that puts everyone at risk. It's no wonder the mental gymnastics involved in looking up numbers, carrying on a conversation, manipulating a phone and maneuvering a heavy vehicle through traffic cause distracted drivers to have the attention span of a gnat.

This is a common-sense measure that will help protect the lives of Maryland citizens whether they drive or not by keeping motorists focused on getting safely where they're going rather than on who's at the other end of the phone.

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