Watch where you're driving when you talk on the phone


Maryland motorists who drive while using cell phones could face roaming charges of a different sort as of today.

Two nearby jurisdictions, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, will begin enforcing new laws banning the use of hand-held phones while operating a motor vehicle.

The two governments join New York, which outlawed the practice in 2001, in imposing fines on drivers with a phone to their ear and a foot on the gas. All three let motorists keep talking with the aid of a hands-free device.

Maryland and 47 other states still permit unrestricted use of cell phones while driving. Some states have even adopted laws forbidding localities from imposing such bans.

But the United States is increasingly out of step with the rest of the industrialized world - and parts of the Third World - in allowing this form of vehicular multi-tasking.

From Australia to Zimbabwe, countries are telling their citizens to stop gabbing and keep their hands on the wheel.

It's verboten on the Autobahn and interdit on the Champs d'Elysees. Under a British law that went into effect Dec. 1, motorists face an instant fine of 30 pounds (about $54) - and possible additional penalties - for using mobile phones while driving.

Proponents of such laws say drivers using cell phones are more likely to have traffic accidents than those whose attention is focused solely on the road.

Two approaches

New Jersey and Washington are taking differing approaches.

The District's legislation was introduced as a cell phone ban but amended to become a much broader prohibition against various forms of distracted driving.

Among the other activities banned behind the wheel: reading, writing, fixing makeup, combing hair and playing with pets.

In Washington, distracted driving will be a primary offense, which means officers can stop and ticket drivers they see using phones even if the motorist is doing nothing else wrong. The fine is $100, though city officials plan to issue warnings through this month.

The Garden State law addresses only cell phones and makes their use a secondary offense. A police officer can ticket drivers only if they've been pulled over for another violation, such as failure to wear a seat belt. Fines run from $100 to $250.

There is no plan for any grace period, though officers can exercise discretion in issuing warnings.

Dangers and rights

Lon Anderson, government relations director of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said his organization is disappointed with the New Jersey approach.

"We think cell phone bills are being held out as a panacea for solving the distracted-driving problem," he said. "We're more excited about the D.C. law."

Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies for the Libertarian-oriented Cato Institute, finds the D.C. legislation disturbing.

"There's a strong personal liberty issue to be aware of in this debate, which is how far do we want our government to go in proscribing certain types of behaviors inside our cars," he said. Thierer said he'd prefer to see police more aggressively use existing laws against reckless or negligent driving without banning specific activities.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states have considered legislation dealing with cell phone use while driving; 11 others have debated bills that would deal with distracted driving in a broader way.

No law in Maryland

Legislation that would ban the use of handheld phones while driving has repeatedly been proposed in the Maryland General Assembly, but the bills have not gotten out of committee.

Del. John S. Arnick, who has sponsored such proposals, said he began pushing the issue because he was getting more complaints about cell phone users than he did about taxes. Frequently, the complaints involved drivers on cell phones cutting off other motorists.

On several occasions, the Baltimore County Democrat said, he has observed drivers distracted by cell phone conversations going too slow in the left lane before realizing they were about to miss their exit. They then suddenly cut across three lanes of traffic, talking all the way, he said.

Some traffic safety advocates are skeptical that such laws work.

The Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization of traffic safety officials, is urging states not to follow the lead of the New York and New Jersey measures.

"We don't have any evidence to show that they're effective," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the group. "Good intentions don't always turn into good laws."

The insurance industry has a big stake in preventing accidents, but so far it hasn't come down in favor of cell phone bans, either. Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the laws passed so far are running ahead of the evidence.

"The research is not there to back up the idea that cell phone use should be restricted," he said.

One question raised by safety experts is whether exempting hands-free cellular systems makes sense. Rader said one Canadian study found that cell phone use increased the risk of accidents fourfold - whether hand-held or hands-free.

"It's not necessarily holding the phone," said the AAA's Anderson. "It's holding the conversation that appears to be the problem."

Cato's Thierer agreed, adding that the most distracting conversations in a car are often those heated discussions with other passengers - yelling at the kids or arguing with a spouse.

"Unless we're willing to ban all conversations inside our vehicles, one wonders how you can really solve this problem," he said.

But with distracted drivers contributing to an estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of accidents - 44,130 in 2002 in Maryland alone - policy-makers are grasping for ideas on how to refocus motorists' attention on the road.

Arnick said he's interested in Washington's approach and is considering proposing a broader bill next year banning other forms of distracted driving along with cell phone use.

"The worst I ever saw," he said, "was a guy brushing his teeth."

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