- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

The D.C. Council yesterday approved a bill that will ban motorists from using hand-held cellular telephones while driving and will make the District’s distracted-driving laws among the toughest in the nation.

“I think most people realize its time has come,” said Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and the principal sponsor of the bill, which still needs the signature of Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Mr. Williams has indicated that he will sign the bill into law, a spokesman said.

The bill will take effect in July.

Violators of the law will draw a flat fine of $100 for each infraction, but no points will be assessed to the driver’s license. The bill does not cover dialing or hanging up a cell phone or turning a cell phone on or off.

“We did not want to ban cell phones out and out, and that would have,” Mrs. Schwartz said. Emergency use of a cell phone for making a 911 call, for example, is exempted.

Also, persons cited for a first offense could have their citations voided if they show proof that they purchased hands-free cell-phone equipment between the time of the citation and the time the fine is due. The cost of such equipment for most phones is $20 or less.

Only New York has a statewide law banning hand-held cell-phone use while driving. The law passed there in 2001 punishes violators with a $100 fine. A similar measure is pending in New Jersey.

The first locality to enact a cell-phone ban is Brooklyn, Ohio, which passed the law in 1999. Drivers there face a $3 fine for an initial infraction and $100 for each subsequent offense.

Several other states have laws that restrict use for bus drivers, and still others are considering measures banning cell-phone use while driving.

Versions of the bill have been introduced — and have failed — in the District since 1999.

Mrs. Schwartz said, in developing her bill, she discovered that only the District and six states across the country had no laws dealing with distracted driving.

She said she broadened the scope of the bill that passed yesterday to be consistent with existing laws in Maryland and Virginia so drivers also could be fined for other distracting activities, such as putting on makeup, fumbling with music collections or interacting with children or pets.

The only council member to vote against the bill, which passed on a 12-1 vote, was Jim Graham, who expressed concern about the resources it would take to enforce such a ban.

“I just can’t see devoting major police resources to this issue,” said Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat.

Council Chairman Linda Cropp, Democrat, dismissed that idea, saying that the real value of the ban is that “it is a deterrent because it is the law.”

Mrs. Cropp was a co-sponsor of the bill along with Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, and Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat.

“The law is not trying to keep people from using cell phones. All we’re saying is when you use cell phones, think of public safety,” Mrs. Cropp said.

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.

“This may give D.C. the most progressive anti-distracted-driving laws in the country,” Mr. Anderson said. “Motorists need to be reminded, perhaps harshly, that their No. 1 duty is to pay attention and drive safely. There’s a lot of data that show that the holding of the conversation, not the holding of the cell phone, is the problem.”

The Governors Highway Safety Administration, a nonprofit association that represents the highway safety interests of states and territories, took issue with the bill, saying that it does not go far enough.

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the administration, said the bill could give drivers the impression that driving while using a hands-free device makes driving with a cell phone safe.

“Research shows that it is the actual conversation that is distracting, so we want drivers to focus only on driving and not use a cell phone at all,” Mr. Adkins said. “Good highway-safety policy should be data- and research-driven. Both indicate that hand-held cell-phone bans aren’t good or necessary policy.”

Mr. Adkins said the benefits of laws mandating hands-free devices remain unclear.

“The New York ban has resulted in a lot of tickets and fines, but we haven’t seen any benefit to public safety,” Mr. Adkins said.

The D.C. bill also would authorize police to collect and include information about likely cell-phone use in vehicle accident reports, as well as information about a host of other distractions that might contribute to accidents. It also requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to publish statistics regarding the relationship between cell-phone use and accidents in the District.

The bill 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.

Drivers with a learner’s permit may not use a cell phone — even with a hands-free device — unless in an emergency situation.

The legislation also would prohibit drivers from using other electronic devices, such as portable computers, unless they are hands-free, too.

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