- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

A bill that would restrict the use of cellular telephones while driving in the District moved through its first reading by the D.C. Council without objection yesterday, a strong indication that the bill will pass on its final vote next month.

“The Distracted Driving Act of 2003” would ban the use of cell phones by drivers unless the phones have hands-free attachments. Emergency use of a cell phone, for making a 911 call, for example, would be exempted. The bill does not cover dialing or hanging up a cell phone, or turning a cell phone on or off.

Violators would be fined $100 for talking on a phone while driving.

The bill faces a final vote on its second reading next month. If passed, enforcement would begin in July.

“The anecdotal evidence has long demonstrated the dangerousness of hand-held telephone use by motorists,” said D.C. Council member Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat and one of five co-sponsors of the bill. “This legislation is a positive step in working to correct this problem.”

The other sponsors were council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, a Democrat; Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican; Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat; and Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat.

D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, said he also supported the bill.

“It’s time,” he said. “It’s a lot easier now; the technology is much more accessible. There’s really no reason not to have this.”

If the council approves the measure, it would still need the mayor’s signature before it could become law.

The bill also would authorize police to collect and include information about likely cell phone use in vehicle accident reports and to require the Department of Motor Vehicles to publish statistics regarding the relationship between cell-phone use and accidents in the District.

Versions of the bill have been introduced — and have failed — in the District since 1999. If it wins passage this time, it will be one of the first such laws in the nation.

New York is the only state that bans cell-phone use while driving. Several other states have laws that restrict use for bus drivers, and several others have introduced measures banning use while driving.

The legislation specifies that a person driving a school bus shall not be able to use a mobile phone while carrying passengers, except for emergency 911 calls and calls to school officials. The legislation also would prohibit drivers from using other electronic devices unless they are hands-free, too.

Lon Anderson, director of public and government relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said his group’s research shows that drivers favor laws restricting cell phone use by a 2-1 margin.

“It’s clear that the overwhelming majority feel very strongly that we should ban hand-held cell phones,” he said. But he cautioned that laws requiring hands-free attachments might not solve the problems of distracted driving.

“It may not be holding the phone that causes the problem,” he said. “It might be holding the conversation.”

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