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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 01:36 PM ET, 06/07/2012

Cellphone laws don’t persuade all drivers to put gadgets down

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

After seven years of commuting from Richmond to the District, I often think we need phone-booth lanes here, not HOV or HOT lanes.


In a Dec. 14, 2011 file photo, Dan Johnson uses a hands-free device to talk on a cellphone while driving in San Diego. (Gregory Bull - Associated Press)
I just got back from California, where I drove from Burbank to Santa Barbara on Route 101 and throughout the towns. Not one driver on 101, which is sometimes five lanes wide but always packed with vehicles, was holding a cellphone to talk or text.

In town, if someone was on a phone, he was parked. It was wonderful. Drivers were actually paying attention to other drivers, pedestrians and bike riders.

Everywhere, I would ask why no one is on the phone in the car, and to a person, young or old, they would respond that there is a steep fine, and you had better not have a phone in your hands (hands-free is allowable). Clearly, everyone has the religion.

Eventually, we might get the religion here in Virginia and forgo the injury and damage because of phone use in the car.

Jeff Miller, Mechanicsville, Va

DG: We must stigmatize distracted driving, as we did with drunken driving. Passing bans on talking and texting while driving is a part of that, but only a part.

Let’s look at California as an example. In that state, it is illegal to use a hand-held cellphone while driving. Drivers older than 18 can use a hands-free device. It also is illegal to text or read a text on a wireless device.

The California Office of Traffic Safety studies the laws’ effects. For this year’s study, researchers stationed themselves at more than 130 intersections and observed driver behavior.

They found 10.8 percent of drivers were using cellphones, up from 7.3 percent in last year’s study. Observed cellphone use increased in all age groups but rose from 9 to 18 percent among young people. The office noted that these observations could be on the low end, because it’s not always possible to spot cellphone use in a passing vehicle.

In a separate study, the University of California at San Diego surveyed local college students. Of the nearly 5,000 students who took the survey, 78 percent reported using a cellphone while driving.

“We know from other studies that a growing percentage of the population is getting the message that using cellphones is dangerous,” Christopher J. Murphy, director of the safety office, said in a statement. “What this new information tells us is that too many are still convinced that a crash will never happen to them. We have to turn that thinking around.”

In Virginia, drivers younger than 18 can’t use cellphones. Texting is banned for all drivers. But it’s legal for drivers older than 18 to use cellphones. In the District, all drivers are banned from using hand-held phones or texting. That’s also the law in Maryland.

Virginia should catch up with the rest of the region, and the rest of the region should consider bans on all cellphone use while driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a ban on cellphone use by drivers. There’s no evidence that hands-free use is less distracting.

Focus on the road

This letter writer asked whether I was encouraging distracted driving.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

At the bottom of your May 24 column in the Local Living section, there was a notice about a mobile service offered by The Washington Post. That placement implied to me that you approved of the service, but I can’t believe that!

It seems that offering such a service, which seems to depend on people in their cars keeping the service up-to-date on road conditions, would rely on people texting from their cars, either while driving (which we all know is illegal and dangerous) or after pulling off the road to do their texting, presumably causing other traffic problems.

Carol Molloy, Takoma Park

DG: I don’t want you reading anything I write while you’re driving, or attempting to send us any information while behind the wheel. I need my readers to stay alive so they can continue reading.

Molloy is referring to the summary of our online services that accompanies my column each week. It also tells you how to write to me.

The section on mobile services explains how to stay in two-way communication with us “when you’re on the go.” I think that’s a good way to express it. Wireless technology is going to help us stay mobile in a region so congested that travelers need to frequently reassess their options.

Will this Red Line delay be over in five minutes, or would I be better off getting out and catching a bus? When I get outside the rail station, will it be raining? Will the bus be able to break free of this traffic jam on Connecticut Avenue, or should I consider either walking the rest of the way or finding a Capital Bikeshare station?

If I’m taking the family from Springfield to Dulles International Airport, and the traffic stops in the Interstate 495 express lanes work zone, is the delay short, or should I try heading west on Route 50? The person in the passenger seat can check that traffic information on a mobile device.

And the person in any of these situations can send a message to us so we can alert other travelers about an impediment. This real-time information sharing among travelers is the way of the future. The Post and many other media outlets are pursuing various mobile services.

Transportation agencies also have picked up on the demand. Virginia and Maryland have 511 information services available for mobile users. Virginia, Maryland and the District send out travel information via Twitter. The District Department of Transportation is particularly good at using Twitter to interact with travelers and share information.

But the more useful the information becomes, the more Molloy’s concern comes into play. My readers are all above average, but they still aren’t good at doing two things at once. When you’re behind the wheel, concentrate on being good at one thing.

By  |  01:36 PM ET, 06/07/2012

Categories:  Driving, Traffic Safety | Tags:  DC transportation, Transportation, Virginia Department of Transportation, District Department of Transportation, Maryland Department of Transportation, Distracted driving

 
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