- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The number of tickets issued by D.C. police to drivers using hand-held cell phones has increased since the District banned the behavior more than two years ago, suggesting that motorists are ignoring warnings not to use the devices while on the road.

“There is still a blatant disregard for the law,” said Capt. M.E. Gresham, commander of the Metropolitan Police Department’s traffic safety and special enforcement branch. “I honestly think a lot of people do not take it seriously.”

Last year, officers handed out 8,342 tickets to drivers using cell phones within D.C. limits, a nearly 11 percent increase from the 7,523 citations issued the year before, police statistics show.

Since police began enforcing the District’s hands-free law in the summer of 2004, nearly 19,500 tickets have been issued to drivers for hand-held cell-phone use, including 343 last month.

Each distracted-driving citation carries a $100 fine, but first-time offenders can get the fine suspended by getting a hands-free accessory before a penalty is imposed.

Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and co-sponsor of the District’s bill, said enforcement in the city has been “awfully lax” but that police also have to prioritize what crimes they pursue.

She also said pedestrians — such as J’Lin Tyler, a 6-year-old struck and killed Feb. 9 by a driver who might have been on a cell phone — are placed in danger by distracted drivers in the densely populated District and that motorists should have the burden placed on them to honor the law.

Capt. Gresham said the Tyler case is still under investigation.

“I see enormous numbers of people talking on their cell phones with one hand, practically hitting you as they turn,” Mrs. Schwartz said. “I want the distracted drivers to take care of this issue themselves.”

According to a report released last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, nearly 80 percent of studied crashes were caused by driver inattention, and the most-common distraction for drivers is the use of cell phones.

The number of tickets issued, however, may not completely reflect the ban’s effect in the District.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) published in September showed that hand-held cell-phone use in the District dropped by about 50 percent one year after the city’s ban, compared to the use rates in Maryland and Virginia.

A similar decline was recorded in New York after the state enacted its restrictions in 2001, but the numbers later rose after publicity about the law died down.

“The pattern typically is initial compliance with the law,” said Anne T. McCartt, senior vice president of research at IIHS. “But that’s not sustained over time if drivers don’t believe they’re at risk or there’s a consequence for disobeying the law.”

Restricting cell-phone use in vehicles has been a growing trend among state legislatures as the number of subscribers to wireless services also has swelled to nearly 233 million, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association.

Twenty-eight states and the District have placed some restrictions on cell-phone use while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Only the District and four states have banned the use of hand-held phones while behind the wheel.

In Maryland, lawmakers are considering two bills that would restrict hand-held-phone use while driving. The state two years ago banned the use of hand-held cell phones for drivers under 18.

In Virginia, lawmakers this year passed a bill prohibiting minors from talking on cell phones.

Matt Sundeen, an analyst for NCSL, said 31 states so far this year have considered laws restricting distracted driving, and in some cases the proposals also are expanding with technology to curb motorists using in-vehicle televisions and DVD players.

But cell phones continue to be the main legislative target, Mr. Sundeen said.

“It’s a relatively new issue. Ten years ago, not very many people had cell phones and the people who did had the big shoe-box device, and it wasn’t a huge issue as far as traffic safety,” he said. Now, “it’s something pretty visible in cars [and] something people can react to.”

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