- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

First there was DWI (driving while intoxicated), then DWB (driving while black). Now we're plagued by DWD: driving while dialing, distracted or discourteous.

A fiery, three-vehicle collision causing five deaths on the Capital Beltway last weekend rekindled the debate about banning hand-held cellular-phone use while driving.

The crash is the first in which a federal agency the National Transportation Safety Board has cited cell-phone use as a probable cause.

Immediately, Maryland and D.C. lawmakers began to push through emergency measures that would create violations and fines for using the distracting devices. But do we need more laws when a little common sense and common courtesy will do?

Initial police reports indicate that on Friday evening Dawn Richardson, 20, of Arlington, was talking to her boyfriend, Melvin Eley, on her cell phone when the Ford Explorer she had just purchased went out of control, crossed a median strip, flipped over and landed on top of a Ford Winstar minivan. She was killed in the crash.

Killed in the minivan were four persons from Quebec: Julien Laliberte, 67; his wife, Hugette, 62; his brother, Laurent, 66; and Laurent's girlfriend, Yolande Rogers, 62. The group was headed to Florida on a three-week vacation.

No injuries were sustained by a Greenbelt family in a Jeep Cherokee that was struck by the minivan during the accident, which tied up traffic for hours.

While the cell phone was thought to be an initial culprit, NTSB officials also are investigating whether aging metal guardrails that failed to keep Miss Richardson's car from careening into oncoming traffic contributed to the accident.

This accident may indicate a need to replace old guardrails, but you don't hear anybody howling about spending money for it in these times of strapped government budgets.

Miss Richardson was not wearing a seat belt and was driving an Explorer for the first time, police say. Also, the Explorer has been criticized as being unsafe after problems with faulty tires were revealed last year.

As usual, lawmakers hone in on the quick fix: Why not ban hand-held cell-phone use while driving?

Many localities have enacted such measures and 43 states are considering bills on the issue, according to Consumer Reports. New York has become the first state to pass a ban requiring drivers to install hands-free equipment if using a cell phone.

In Maryland, a bill that would ban cell-phone use while driving was killed in the General Assembly last year. Another has been introduced that would impose a $500 fine for dialing while driving.

Similar measures failed in Virginia, which tabled the issue until next year.

In the District, D.C. Council member Harold Brazil is proposing legislation that would impose a $100 fine for drivers using hand-held cell phones. He also is asking for a regionwide resolution that would establish a uniform set of regulations regarding cell-phone use while driving.

We have a bigger problem than cell phones on our roadways. Distracted drivers come in all varieties. Those who put on lipstick while driving. Those who reach over to restrain a child. Those who lean over to put out a cigarette. Those who change radio stations. Those trying to dig those fries out of the bag. Those who run their mouths.

How can we pass laws for each and every distraction? More important, how are these laws going to be enforced?

One University of North Carolina study of 25,000 accidents over a five-year period found that 15 percent were caused by drivers not paying attention. Only 1.5 percent of that category was attributed to cell-phone use. The leading cause was some distraction outside the vehicle, the second was adjusting a radio or CD player, and the third, talking to passengers.

Of course the telecommunica-tions lobby is opposing cell-phone bans to protect their $39 billion industry. Instead, they are pushing public-safety campaigns.

About 177 million Americans use cell phones. That's 62 percent of the population. And, 85 percent of those admit they have used their phones while driving. This is apparently another area where lawmakers find they cannot legislate all behavior.

Many of us have been driving so long we consider it second nature and just get plain sloppy. We forget we are driving at warp speeds in a two-ton projectile loaded with fuel, masked by cushy seats and carpeting. In our hustle-bustle lives, we think we can do two tasks which require our undivided attention at the same time.

I'd guess that more than half the calls made on cell phones are to let somebody know we're running late because we're stuck in traffic due to a tie-up caused by a distracted or discourteous driver.

We all need to be more careful and considerate. It shouldn't take the threat of a whopping fine for us to exercise common sense and common courtesy.

Adrienne T. Washington's e-mail address is [email protected]aol.com.

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