- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Motorists must make sure that they aren’t driven to distraction by cell phones when a new measure takes effect in the District tomorrow.

The new law, one of just a few in the nation, will require people to use a hands-free device while driving.

“It’s all about safety,” Metropolitan Police Capt. Kevin Keegan said.

The measure also will prohibit a range of other activities while driving — from reading to grooming.

D.C. police will give drivers a 31-day grace period before issuing fines, warning people about the new law throughout July. Beginning in August, anyone caught holding a phone while driving can be fined $100, but no points will be assessed.

Police officers will be permitted to pull over motorists whom they see holding a cell phone.

Under the law, drivers will be permitted to hold a phone only to make emergency calls, dial a number or turn a phone on and off. The city will suspend fines for first-time offenders who show proof that they have acquired a hands-free device.

People with learner’s permits will not be allowed to use a cell phone at all.

Law-enforcement and emergency personnel may use a mobile phone while driving, if needed.

Police will inform people about the new law using electronic signs, but Capt. Keegan said there are no plans to set up a dragnet to ensnare people using hand-held phones while driving.

“I don’t think it’s going to become our primary traffic effort. At first, there will be some added attention to it, but it won’t take precedence over anything else that is a contributing factor to crashes,” he said.

Seventeen states ban some motorists, such as school-bus drivers, from using cell phones while driving. But only New York and New Jersey, where a ban on using hand-held phones also begins tomorrow, have statewide rules regulating cell-phone use while driving.

The District’s measure takes effect without clear evidence that motorists drive more safely if their wireless phone is equipped with a hands-free device, and research calls into question the effectiveness of letting drivers use cell phones at all.

Allowing drivers to use a hands-free device “shouldn’t have much of an effect on” highway safety, said David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who has conducted numerous studies on cell-phone use and driving.

In a report last year, Mr. Strayer and two other researchers concluded that motorists using a hand-held phone or a hands-free phone in simulated driving “exhibited greater impairment than intoxicated drivers,” even though people using cell phones compensated by driving slower and increasing the distance between them and the car in front of them.

The results indicate that speaking on a phone, not holding one, is the significant factor causing driver distraction.

“The distraction is more mental than physical,” Mr. Strayer said.

Another report in June 2003 concluded that talking on a mobile phone while driving is just as dangerous when using hands-free equipment as when holding a phone.

The Swedish National Road Administration, a national agency, tested 48 persons in driving simulators. Half of the drivers used a hand-held phone, and half used phones with hands-free devices. All the drivers received about 10 phone calls each over 90 minutes of simulated driving in different conditions, and the test revealed little difference in reaction time between the two groups.

Capt. Keegan said hands-free devices will improve safety, despite conclusions that the technology doesn’t improve drivers’ awareness.

“They definitely will make the situation safer. They don’t tie up one of your hands,” the captain said.

New York’s cell-phone regulation has been in place since November 2001. Police issued 269,230 tickets from December 2001 through mid-May, according to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles.

But the law hasn’t changed the behavior of drivers there, because many still use hand-held wireless phones, said Anne McCartt, a senior research associate at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry-funded group in Arlington.

Nearly as many drivers in New York used hand-held cell phones 16 months after the law took effect as did before the measure became law, she said. In neighboring Connecticut, the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers increased.

“It’s not enough to pass a law. In the long run, people have to believe that if they disobey the law, there will be consequences,” Miss McCartt said.

D.C. Council members have not exempted themselves from the cell-phone law, unlike the parking fines and restrictions that they excused themselves from in 2002.

Unless D.C. officials embark on an aggressive education campaign, the law could be ignored here, too, said Lisa Sheikh, executive director of Partnership for Safe Driving, a nonprofit group based in the District that supports legislation to promote safe driving.

“I don’t think the District has the resources to enforce the law,” she said. “With little enforcement and no education, it’s not likely to have much of an effect.”

Other safety advocates are skeptical, too, because there is no clear evidence of a link between cell-phone use and auto crashes. Police in 18 states collect information on crash reports that indicate when cell-phone use has caused a driver to crash.

“We’re urging states to slow down a little bit … and see if laws are going to be effective,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a group representing state highway-safety agencies.

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