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Despite Law, Drivers Keep Dialing With No Headsets

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C01

Early in his midnight tour of duty, an Audi slammed into the rear of Master Patrol Officer Fred Rosario's D.C. police cruiser as it idled at an intersection on New York Avenue. The officer, stunned but uninjured, approached the car and found an inebriated driver chatting with his girlfriend, a cell phone still pressed to his ear.

Nine months after the District became the only jurisdiction in the Washington area to require that motorists use hands-free devices with cell phones, police still find droves of drivers steering with one hand and burning up cell phone minutes with the other.

At L Street and Connecticut Avenue NW in the District, a driver uses a cell phone without a hands-free device, despite a law enacted nine months ago that mandates the use of such devices by motorists. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

"I see it every day," Rosario said. "They give me every excuse in the book."

Some offenders, particularly those who don't live in the District, tell officers they didn't know about the city's law. Others plead guilty only to needing to talk with their children. One man, traffic hearing examiner Jason W. Simpson said, tried to explain that he used his cell phone as a "watch piece" and denied that he was breaking the law.

Lt. Byron Hope, a D.C. police traffic safety coordinator, said most violators follow a simple principle of human existence: "People are going to do what they think they can get away with."

And they continue to. In a 30-minute span at 14th and K streets NW as evening rush started one day last week, about a dozen drivers were spotted yakking, with phone held firmly to ear. Three others were using the required hands-free device.

Jim Marshall of Southeast Washington owns up to crossing the legal line occasionally.

"I've had a few close calls with police officers" while driving and chatting, he said. But Marshall tries to do right. He has a hands-free device, but it's on the fritz. So in recent weeks, he said, he has done his best to pull over when he gets a call. Thursday night, Marshal remained parked in his Chevy Prizm as he made a call before leaving a convenience store parking lot.

Parked behind him was Jonathan Tabbs, who stopped to light a cigarette and put his cell phone to his ear. Tabs lives in Maryland but drives frequently in District and knows the rules.

"When I'm in D.C., I don't move," Tabbs said. "I don't need . . . extra tickets."

Cell phone use is "the new kid on the block" of distracted driving, compared with such imperatives as men shaving or women fixing their hair behind the wheel, Hope said. The District law mandating a hands-free device took effect July 1, the day New Jersey enacted a similar measure. New York was the first state to enact such legislation, in 2001.

After a month of issuing warnings to violators, D.C. police had issued more than 3,500 tickets through Feb. 24, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The cost of each ticket is $100, but the fine is suspended for first-time violators who can prove that they have purchased a hands-free accessory.

In Maryland, where a Prince George's County school bus driver who was using a cell phone skidded off a road with about 30 students on board in February, legislators are seriously considering their own cell phone crackdown. On March 17, the House of Delegates approved legislation that would bar novice teenage drivers from using cell phones, though the measure has yet to become law.

The Virginia Senate passed a bill this year that would have banned drivers younger than 18 from using cell phones on the road, even with a hands-free device. But the House of Delegates wanted the law to target only hand-held phones for teen drivers. Unable to find a compromise, the bill died.

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