Thursday, August 26, 2004

Metropolitan Police have issued 252 tickets to drivers using hand-held cell phones since a “distracted driving” law became fully effective Aug. 1.

Police also have issued 31 tickets to other “distracted” drivers who were drinking coffee, eating fast food, or fussing with pets or children, according to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

Each of the 283 tickets carries a $100 fine.

“[Distracted driving] is not our number one priority, but it is important,” said police Capt. Kevin Keegan of the Traffic Safety Unit. “We are not getting preoccupied with it. … This is just another law that fits in among hundreds of traffic violations, though it is high on the list of items that would contribute to a crash.”

Officers now must document crashes involving mobile-phone use, but Capt. Keegan said it is too soon to evaluate the effect of the law on traffic safety.

Many jurisdictions aim similar laws exclusively at mobile-phone use, but the District’s definition of distracted driving includes any activity that diverts attention from the road, including such commonplace tasks as eating fast food or tuning the radio.

“I’m encouraged to hear [D.C. police] wrote 30-some-odd tickets for other things [than cell phones],” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, an automobile owners advocacy, research and service group.

Mr. Anderson said studies show that distractions such as eating, fiddling with the radio and interacting with children cause more accidents than using cell phones. Rubbernecking at accidents is the leading distraction contributing to crashes, he said.

“There are many, many distractions, and [police] need to focus on some of the others,” Mr. Anderson said.

Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said drivers should be trained not to use cell phones while behind the wheel, but that the lesson should not include a ticket and a fine.

“This is common sense,” said Mr. Adkins, whose nonprofit group represents state highway administrations, including the D.C. Department of Public Works. “If we start to pass laws for every potentially dangerous behavior, laws lose their impact.”

The D.C. Council in January passed a bill banning the use of hand-held cell phones, among other distractive acts, while driving. Drivers may use hands-free cell phones while behind the wheel.

The law applies to every driver except police and emergency workers acting within the scope of their official duties. Drivers dialing 911 or 311 in an emergency also are exempt.

The law took effect July 1, but police issued mostly warnings last month.

First offenders of the cell-phone ban can avoid the fine by showing up at traffic court with proof of having purchased a hands-free device. Drivers indulging in other distractions, however, likely have to pay the fine.

The penalty does not include points against a driver’s license.

The District’s law is among the nation’s toughest.

In 2001, New York imposed the country’s first statewide ban on using cell phones while driving, penalizing offenders with a $100 fine.

New Jersey followed suit this year, though police there can issue a citation only when stopping a driver for another traffic violation. The fine ranges from $100 to $250.

Brooklyn, Ohio, in 1999 became the first city to enact a cell-phone ban. Violators there face a $3 fine for the initial infraction and $100 for each subsequent ticket.

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