City Sends Signal On Cell Phone Use
Law Aims to Focus Drivers' Attention
By Dakarai I. Aarons
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page B01
Glenn O'Gilvie of Upper Marlboro is a self-described cell phone junkie. He spends more than 2,000 minutes a month on the phone, much of it while navigating busy roadways during his 40-minute daily commute to the District.
"Verizon loves me," he said.
Beginning July 1, a new District law will require O'Gilvie and thousands of other cell phone users in the Washington area to use a hands-free device if they talk while driving in the city. After a 31-day period during which drivers will receive warnings, violators will be given tickets and fined $100 for each offense.
More than 70 percent of the District's workforce commutes from Maryland or Virginia, so the impending law already has caused area stores to stock up on hands-free devices, ranging in price from $15 for a basic headset or earpiece to $100 or more for a top-of-the-line wireless headset or speakerphone, like the one O'Gilvie plans to install in his car.
Safety is the primary goal of the law, said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), one of the sponsors of the legislation. "We have all seen accidents caused by [drivers using] cell phones and countless near-misses," she said. "If people have both hands on the wheel, it's a good start."
New York state has required the use of hands-free cell phones since 2001. On July 1, New Jersey will also implement a statewide law that restricts motorists' use of cell phones.
In the District, police officers will be permitted to pull over motorists they see holding a cell phone to their ear, said Lt. Patrick Burke, the police department's traffic safety coordinator.
Under the law, drivers will be permitted to hold a phone only to make emergency calls, to dial a call or to power the phone on or off. The city will suspend fines for first-time offenders who submit proof that they have acquired a hands-free device, Burke said.
If drivers from other jurisdictions fail to pay their tickets, they could lose their driver's licenses because of reciprocity agreements with Maryland, Virginia and other states, said Anne Witt, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.
As of April, New York had issued 269,230 tickets for improper cell phone use under its 2001 law, said Joe Picchi, spokesman for the New York Department of Motor Vehicles.
Many area retailers have been preparing for months for the law's effective date. Radio Shack and Best Buy have increased the number of hands-free devices shipped to local stores in anticipation of the new law, according to company spokesmen. Circuit City stores from the District to New Jersey plan to create displays featuring headset models and information about the new laws, spokeswoman Amanda Tate said.
Some businesses already have policies restricting cell phone use by their employees. Comcast of the District has bought and given headsets to every worker who has a company cell phone, spokeswoman Kathy Etemad said.
Verizon Wireless requires all employees to use hands-free devices while on company business. Other businesses, such UPS and FedEx Express, forbid drivers to use cell phones and other devices while driving.
But not everyone is convinced that the new law will lead to safer roads.
The law could send the wrong message to motorists, said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit organization that represents state highway safety agencies. Because laws governing motorists' cell phone use are relatively new, there isn't sufficient research to prove that hands-free devices make driving safer, Adkins said. "It gives drivers a false sense of security," he said.
Adkins noted that the District law doesn't address what he called the chief distraction: a driver's phone conversation. His association recommends that states institute educational campaigns to inform drivers about all possible distractions rather than pass laws targeting cell phones.
The District law requires police officers to note in each accident report whether a cell phone was a factor. The reports will be sent to the D.C. Department of Transportation, which must publish an annual report on any connection between accidents and the use of cell phones and other electronic devices.
District officials plan to use lighted signs at high-traffic city gateways to inform drivers about the new law but have not decided whether to install permanent postings because of concerns about "sign clutter," Burke said.
Morton Taubman, waiting for his SUV at a downtown parking garage, said he uses a speakerphone when he needs to converse during his commute between Potomac and the District. He called the new law "ridiculous" because it fails to address a serious distraction: dialing.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company