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Campaign urges drivers to be attentive

The Baltimore Sun

Sirens rang out at the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company as engines turned into a parking lot, where firefighters pried off the driver-side door of a wrecked blue Toyota Camry.

The firefighters performed the mock rescue at the staged wreck yesterday to help kick off the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's summer Regional Highway Safety Campaign against distracted driving.

Capt. Glenn Resnick of the Pikesville Precinct said that all too often at accident scenes, "we can see fast food on the floor, we see the cell phone laying down on the floorboard after the event."

Nearly 80 percent of crashes are related to drivers who are not paying attention within three seconds of the collision, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. In the Baltimore region, more than 500 fatalities from 1997 to 2006 resulted from distracted drivers.

As drivers attend to children or make phone calls, they tend to swerve or slow down, Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Terrence B. Sheridan said in an interview.

"There's entirely too much traffic today for people to be distracted," he said. "As one of the most congested areas in the country, all of these distractions have the potential to be fatal."

In March, the state Senate considered a bill to make it illegal for drivers to use hand-held cell phones. The measure was blocked by the House of Delegates Environmental Matters Committee.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council noted that the increasing use of cell phones - which many states, including New Jersey, have banned for those operating vehicles - more use of electronics, eating while driving and other passengers in a vehicle cause distractions.

"It's becoming more and more prevalent," said Larry W. Klimovitz, executive director of the council. "It's more imperative for people to realize that they cannot be distracted."

Klimovitz said the distractions are increasing with the rising use of iPods, DVDs, global positioning systems and cell phones.

Using radio ads, the council aims to promote awareness of the issue as summer vacations begin, especially among parents of teenage drivers. Teenagers are also preoccupied with text messaging on cell phones and changing radio stations, Resnick said. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety statistics show that two-thirds of traffic accidents involving 16-year-old drivers occur when other teens are in a vehicle.

Resnick urged drivers to turn off phones before turning the key and to stop eating behind the wheel. He also said drivers should preset electronics before leaving, institute family rules for the car and pull over, if needed. Resnick advised drivers to "pay attention."

Yesterday's demonstration showed how dangerous reaching for the phone and other distractions can be, using signs outside the firehouse to mark the distance a driver traveling 60 mph would cover in two seconds. At 60 mph, a car would travel 264 feet, and after four seconds a car would travel the length of a football field.

"We know that if people are not distracted, we can save lives," said Ken Ulman, the Howard County executive and chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. "You never know when there is something else that is going to happen on the road that is out of your control."

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