- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is it the frenzied lobbyist late for a Capitol Hill appointment, the chatty teenager discussing weekend plans with a friend or the confused tourist phoning in for directions?

Whoever the culprit and whatever the excuse, motorists in the District are once again on pace to break the city record for tickets received for using hand-held cell phones while driving.

“Almost everyone is guilty of violating this law sooner or later, and nobody wants to be caught,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

Through July, officers from the Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in the city have issued 6,851 distracted-driving tickets to licensed motorists for cell phone use, not including tickets issued to school bus drivers or drivers using a learner’s permit, according to police statistics.

An average of about 75 more tickets per month have been issued so far in 2008 compared with this time last year, according to preliminary totals. The increase is consistent with the city’s upward trend: In 2005, police issued 7,526 tickets to drivers using cell phones.Officers issued 8,369 tickets in 2006 and 11,192 in 2007.

Since police began enforcing the law in the summer of 2004, roughly 37,200 tickets have been issued. The District also penalizes drivers distracted by things other than cell phones. Officers have issued 3,308 tickets to motorists through July for violations that can include reading a newspaper, putting on makeup and eating.

Using a cell phone to send a text message or fiddling with an iPod also can result in a citation for distracted driving, Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said.

“The more devices people have available to them, the more often they’re tempted to use them while driving,” Miss Hughes said.

Mr. Mendelson said he thinks the increase in citations is simply the result of more people talking on cell phones while driving.

The number of wireless subscribers in the country swelled to 255.4 million by the end of last year, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an international nonprofit based in the District.

The number of wireless subscribers in 2005 was 207.9 million, up from 33.8 million in 1995.

“More people are [talking on cell phones while driving], so there are more people to be caught and hence more tickets are being issued,” Mr. Mendelson said.

The exact correlation between cell phone use and traffic accidents has been difficult to determine.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver distraction from all sources contributes to 25 percent of all police-reported crashes, though a 2007 study by the agency found that hand-held cell phone use by drivers decreased to 5 percent in 2006, compared with 6 percent in 2005.

The District and six states - California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Washington - completely ban hand-held phone use by drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The fine for distracted driving in the District is $100, but first-time offenders can have the penalty suspended by buying a hands-free accessory within a specified time.

Mr. Mendelson said his opinion varies on whether D.C. police are doing enough to enforce the law, but drivers also must shoulder their share of responsibility.

“We’re trying to change people’s behavior, and that’s a very tough thing for the law to do,” he said.

• David C. Lipscomb contributed to this report.

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