- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

Virginia earlier this month joined the District and Maryland in enacting laws that prohibit inexperienced drivers from sending text messages, but area police officers say the bans may have little effect on driving habits.

“Practically speaking, it’s a very difficult thing to enforce,” said Lt. James Bartlett, spokesman for the Alexandria Police Department.

Lt. Bartlett said Alexandria police have written few, if any, citations for cell-phone violations since the law went into effect on July 1. Police in Virginia, Maryland and the District say they don’t keep clear statistics on citations written for text messaging.

A survey released in January by Nationwide Mutual Insurance showed that 19 percent of motorists surveyed admitted to sending text messages while driving.

A Virginia Tech student last month slammed her sport utility vehicle into the corner of a restaurant while sending a text message on her cell phone, Blacksburg police said. Mary Elizabeth Bowen, 20, of Winchester, Va., was charged with drunken driving.

No one was seriously injured.

New York police last week said that text messaging was a factor in a highway collision that led to the death of five recent high school graduates in the western New York town of Canandaigua. A text message was sent from the phone of driver Bailey E. Goodman, 17, two minutes before the crash was reported. It is not clear whether Miss Goodman was the person who sent the message.

A New York state senator is proposing a law that would add text messaging to the state’s ban on handheld cell-phone use while driving.

John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said legislators in the D.C. area have been “light years ahead of the other areas of the country” in passing laws that protect against distracted driving.

While Washington is the only state that has specifically prohibited text messaging while driving, police in the District say a 2004 law prohibiting use of a handheld cell phone while driving also covers text messaging.

Maryland passed a law in 2005 prohibiting drivers under 18 years old from using all wireless communications devices.

Legislators tried to extend the restriction to all drivers this January, but the bill was defeated in committee.

“If you’ve got to look down to punch the buttons or dial a number, it’s really distracting,” said state Sen. Norman R. Stones Jr., Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the legislation.

Texting while on the phone can still lead to reckless driving charges in Maryland and Virginia.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds who use a handheld telephone while driving in both states commit a secondary offense, which is not enough to pull them over.

Police can stop drivers only for primary offenses, such as speeding or failure to stop at a stop sign.

Distracted driving accounts for 80 percent of accidents, according to a study published last year by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The agency found that drivers are three times more likely to crash when text messaging.

“The evidence is mounting at how dangerous this is, no matter what age you are,” Mr. Townsend said. “We’ve got to go back to driving in such a way that driving is our total focus.”