Distracted driving takes more than 3,100 lives each year in the United States. It can involve anything from adjusting the car stereo to dropping hot liquid in your lap. But the worst offender is the cell phone. Rare is the motorist who hasn’t seen a near-collision, or worse, because the driver was talking or texting instead of paying attention to the road. Police write tickets for distracted driving all the time. In Maryland, it’s against the law to operate a handheld phone while driving. But officers can’t be everywhere at all times. And the alternatives, like driver education campaigns and public service announcements in the media or roadside billboards, can only do so much. How else to convince drivers to leave their phones alone?
In Montgomery County, there might be an answer, or at least part of one. Recently, Tom Hucker, vice-president of the Montgomery County Council and chair of its transportation subcommittee, urged state lawmakers to take action. He wants the Maryland General Assembly to approve legislation in the upcoming 2020 session authorizing the county to operate stationary, automated video cameras capable of detecting when drivers are using cell phones in a moving vehicle. The concept is not unlike existing technology used to capture red light and speed violations remotely. The chief difference is that it requires artificial intelligence to analyze the image to recognize a cell phone in use. That’s a bit more advanced than merely detecting red-light running or speeding. But advocates have an answer for that: Human beings will review the footage to make sure that violations take place before citations are dropped in the mail.
As we have seen in Maryland, the presence of a red light camera cuts down on the number of motorists who run that particular signal. And a speed camera — if operated properly — can reduce the likelihood of speeding on a particular stretch of road. Granted, there can be problems, as experienced in Baltimore when speed cameras proved inaccurate and the program had to be shut down six years ago. But such issues largely now seem to be in the rear view mirror, and preserving lives is worth the risk of minor, correctable mistakes. In New South Wales, Australia, where the no-cell-phone-while-driving technology was recently adopted, government officials have estimated that traffic deaths will decline by 30% by 2021 as hundreds of cameras result in thousands of tickets.
Critics will likely raise concerns over the potential violation of privacy and the local government revenue-producing aspect, despite potential safety improvements. Thus, Montgomery County ought to be offered as a limited test case — much as it was years ago on red light and speed cameras, before they were authorized elsewhere across the state. Reasonable restrictions can be applied. Video footage can be kept secure and used for no other purpose.
Here’s a few other ideas: State lawmakers can approve cell phone cameras to Montgomery County and let the council decide whether it wants to move forward with a pilot project. They can restrict the number of cameras or the size of the fine or even require months of “warning” citations with no fine at all. They can mandate warning signs at camera locations. They can require a study to determine if the citations change driver behavior. Indeed, that last restriction is probably a good idea; what’s the point if the cameras don’t ultimately make the roads safer?
What Annapolis ought not do is simply stand in the way. Distracted driving is too serious a challenge to take lightly. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported, distracted driving resulted in 599 non-passenger deaths in 2017. Bicyclists and pedestrians are threatened by these types of crashes, too. Montgomery County, Mr. Hucker notes, suffers more losses from distracted driving than it does from homicides each year. Police officers already have the authority to pull over drivers they see texting, talking or using some app on their cell phones. This simply allows technology to supplement that effort at a minimal cost but with the huge upside of potentially making Maryland’s roads much safer for all of us, including those who wrongly believe they can post a selfie on Instagram and change lanes on the Capital Beltway at the same time.