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Not-so-smart phones

Was anyone surprised by how many drivers were caught using hand-held cellphones on Tuesday by police in Maryland? Surely, only those who weren't aware that Maryland's ban on putting phone to ear while driving had gone from a secondary offense (ticketed only when a vehicle is pulled over for some other violation) to a primary one.

That police had little trouble finding offenders — as well as adults in the back seat who failed to use seat belts (now a secondary offense) — demonstrated precisely why the new laws were needed in the first place. It was already illegal for a Maryland driver to use a hand-held cellphone, but it's clear the message hasn't gotten through to an awful lot of people.

On U.S. 1 north of Baltimore, it took two hours to hand out 38 citations and 28 warnings. In Anne Arundel County, there were 165 tickets issued from just one location — along West Street and Riva Road in the Annapolis area. Spotting drivers using cellphones these days is about as difficult as finding litter alongside a highway.

Cell phones have become a common bone of contention in this country. There are traditionalists who hate the way they have intruded in our lives and the phone-dependent who see no reason why they can't be in hand 24 hours a day. But driving while using a cell phone isn't a matter of mere courtesy or etiquette, it's a basic question of safety for all motorists.

Distracted driving has become an epidemic on our highways. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation about 3,000 people are killed each year in crashes that involve distraction of some kind. Cell phones are the fastest growing source of that distraction.

That a cell phone causes the driver to take one hand off the wheel is bad enough, but experts say it's also a matter of taking the driver's eyes and attention off the task at hand. The combination of all three is potentially harmful — about 10 percent of all injury-related crashes are thought to involve distraction of some sort.

That's not to suggest that talking or texting on cell phones represents the entire problem. It can also be distracting when drivers eat and drink, groom themselves, read, talk to passengers, watch videos, play with a radio or use a navigation system while the vehicle is moving. But the proliferation of cell phones appears to have driven up the nation's injury accident numbers more than anything else.

Of course, it's one thing to simply warn motorists of the potential hazard of using a cell while driving. It's another to pass a law banning hand-held phones. But as this week's enforcement effort demonstrates, changing the behavior of some people requires that they actually be pulled over and given a $75 citation for a first offense ($125 for a second one). Even then, who knows? But at least having that one-on-one with a police officer tends to get a person's undivided attention.

This has been an evolving area of law, and even now, it's hard to know whether Maryland's ban on hand-held cell phones is sufficient. Using a hands-free phone is no guarantee of safe driving — although no state, as of yet, bans all driver use of cell phones entirely. As of this week, about one-third of states ban driver use of hand-held cell phones and make it a primary offense.

As for the seat belt law, most states have taken similar action and require use by adult passengers. Even as front-seat belt use has become the norm (with as much as 98 percent compliance in some states), back-seat belt use has lagged. Yet studies consistently show that seat belts save lives, including in the back seat where passengers can easily be thrown forward violently in a crash — into the windshield, the dashboard and front-seat passengers.

Police will need to continue these enforcement efforts, not to raise money for local or state government (the common gripe of the unhappily ticketed) but to change driver behavior. When it's possible to commute or run errands without witnessing a multitude of fellow drivers with cell phones mashed to the sides of their faces, then we'll know the campaign has yielded results.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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