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Transcript: Thursday, October 7, 2004, 11 a.m. ET

Distracted Driver Safety Act of 2004

Inspector Kevin Keegan
D.C. Metropolitan Police Department
Thursday, October 7, 2004; 11:00 AM

Inspector Kevin Keegan was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and has been with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) since 1981. Amongst other major responsibilities, he's overseen the MPD traffic safety unit for the past two years.

He discussed the Distracted Driver Safety Act of 2004 that's in effect in Washington, D.C., as of July 1, 2004.


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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Inspector Kevin Keegan: Good morning, I am Inspector Kevin Keegan of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. I am here to assist people understand the new Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004 and enhance the publics awareness of the Act.

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Washington, D.C.: Please, please, please tell me I'll soon see fines issued to all those drivers with their cell phones stapled to their ears! At $100 each, I think I've seen at least $1000 driving by in the last month.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: The answer to your question is yes. During the month of July, MPD began issuing warnings for the new Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004 and beginning August 1, 2004, we began issuing real tickets with a $100.00 fine.

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Virginia: Do you really think this law has had made any difference in people not talking on the phone while they're driving? I see people in D.C. all the time on cell phones while they're driving.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: I am sure it has. I believe all of us have experienced other drivers operating their vehicles in an unsafe manner only to pull up beside them and observe them using a cell phone or being distracted in some other way. Keep in mind that the law does not only address cell phone usage but all types of distractions. Also, the law does not outlaw cell phone usage but mandates that they be used with a hands free device, therefore allowing persons to pay more attention to their driving.

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: Are there any stats on the number of people that have been given tickets since this law was enacted?

Inspector Kevin Keegan: There are and I have some to share with you. In August there were 740 tickets written for cell phone and other electronic device usage and 84 tickets written for distractions other than cell phone and electronic device usage. In September, those numbers were 412 and 76 respectively.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think this is something that will branch to Maryland and Virginia? It needs to be, I've seen so many "almost accidents" happen, b/c of someone talking on the phone and not paying attention to the road. ARGHHH!!!!

Inspector Kevin Keegan: I think it will. I have recieved many inquiries regarding the law because other jurisdictions have also experienced crashs resulting in deaths and injuries as a result of drivers being distracted.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question...have you actually seen a decrease in the number of accidents in the D.C. area since this was put into place? Curious to know.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: This is a good question but the answer is that we have not had enough time to analyze the data gathered thus far. Up until now, there was no hard data. Currently, officers are required to describe on the accident report the exact cause of the distraction. In 6-12 months we should have hard data. Currently, it is a common sense approach to an obviously growing problem.

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Rockville, Md.: Can a driver use his cell phone if he/she is stuck in stop and go traffic (not an uncommon occurence) and is not currently moving even though he/she is in a traffic lane?

Inspector Kevin Keegan: The key to this would be that the Law states if you are "operating a motor vehicle". In the case you described, you would be operating.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Recent evidence demonstrates that a driver talking on a cell phone, whether or not the cell phone is in the driver's hand, is the distraction that causes an increased accident rate i.e. the conversation is the distraction not the hand. Does the D.C. law prohibit all driver cell phone conversations? If not then when will it?

Inspector Kevin Keegan: Remember that the law does not prohibit cell phone usage but cell phone usage without a hands free device. I have seen other research that states that the conversation itself does in fact distract the driver to some degree.

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Washington, D.C.: Last night, I saw a Metro police officer in the Hill neighborhood near Union Station driving in his police cruiser while talking on his cell phone without the use of a hands-free device. Are you guys subject to the same laws as us regular folk? And in hoping the answer to that is "yes", is there anything citizens can do when we see situations like that one?
Thanks.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: Actually, law enforcement and emergency personnel are not subject to the law while performing official duties but the MPD has a policy that we will set an example by using hands free device whenever possible.

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Reston, Va. I think this law is absurd! I have read a number of national studies that have said the real danger in cell phone use while driving is not from talking - but from looking down to dial. So even if you have some idiot in an SUV using a headset, he/she still most likely has to look at his/her phone to dial. This completely negates the whole point of the law and makes me wonder why it even exists. Who cares how safe it is to talk on the phone if dialing is the most dangerous part of the process and not even mentioned in this law.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: I think you are correct about dialing being one of the most dangerous parts of cell phone usage while driving but that is not to say that one can't be charged for being distracted for dialing. There are currently options and probably more will surface in the future like, pulling over to a safe place, speed dialing and voice activated devices. It is difficult to say where the technology is going but we are addressing it as best we can right now.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for joining us and for trying to keep the streets safe.

Like the first poster, I see tons of people on their phones all the time. I worry that the hard-core cell phone user might be willing to take the risk on such a small fine (especially given by all the gabbers I see driving around every day). Given the seriousness of distraced driving, shouldn't the fines be hgiher? Also, are there plans for repeat offenders? It's simply unsafe and irresponsible, and a car can be a deadly weapon. Half the time I see a car around me doing something stupid - in the district or otherwise - they're on the phone.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: I agree. Sooner or later your hard core cell phone users will get caught. Currently, there is not a graduated scale for repeat offenders but I am sure that those that write the laws might consider this a great idea.

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Washington, D.C.: So I'm eating my dinner (a sandwich) in the car as I often do getting from one job to another. Are you saying this is now per se illegal in the District? How are you to decide what's distracting and and what's not?

Inspector Kevin Keegan: It has aleays been illegal to allow yourself to become distracted while operating a motor vehicle. The new law is simply addressing modern technology. If your eating while operating causes you to creat an unsafe situation or become invoilved in a crash, then you are in violation.

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Darnestown, Md.: Are there any exceptions to the new law?

Inspector Kevin Keegan: That's a great question. There are and you can actually view a copy of the law on this site but to answer your question. Anybody making an emergency call, either 911 or 311 is an exception. New drivers with learner's permits and bus drivers with passengers should never use a cell phone even with the hands free device unless it under the emergency exception above.

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Washington, D.C.: Please be more careful in your comments. The law emphatically does not ban "all types of distractions." Your own website linked above specifies phones and electronic devices, "including hand-held computers, pagers, personal data assistants (PDAs) and video games."

Inspector Kevin Keegan: Please refer to the law itself. I am sure it will help clear up your concerns.

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Washington, D.C. (Friendship Heights): What is the rule on cell phones while driving on Western Avenue, N.W. (the border between the District and Maryland)? Not that I break it a lot, but it is certainly a curiosity over who has jurisdiction. Are you allowed to talk while on the north side of the road (ie. heading S.W.) but not on the south side of the road (ie. heading N.E.). As someone who lives literally right on the border, I would love to know.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: Western Ave. is part of D.C. Atleast to the curb and sometimes further. In areas you will sometimes see a stone column marking the border on the Md. side.

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Washington, D.C.: I think the purpose behind the law makes a lot of sense, however I find it more distracting to attach the earpiece while driving then it is just to answer the phone. It seems to me that the new distraction will be fiddling with earpieces.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: I felt the same way at first but it just takes some getting used to.

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Washington, D.C.: You said: "Actually, law enforcement and emergency personnel are not subject to the law while performing official duties but the MPD..." Why doesn't the MPD get the officers hands-free devices? Frankly, I am sick of watching police break the law: Cell-phone, speeding, illegal parking (at 7-11, for instance), flashing their lights/sirens just to go through pesky red lights, littering, etc. Seriously, there is a discipline problem that is obvious. Inspector Kevin Keegan: We are on it. The MPD provided me with one and there are more forthcoming.

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Fairfax, Va.: I was in Rome last fall and only saw one person w/a cell phone to his ear while driving. Since most of the Roman population seemed to have had cell phones surgically attached to their ears, I was surprised. Turns out using cell phones while driving had just been made illegal. I don't know what the punishment was for failure to obey the law, but it certainly was sufficiently severe to stop the practice.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: Thanks for the information. I'll check and see what they did to have such a successful program.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Do you know of any states that have this or a similiar law that the District has?

Inspector Kevin Keegan: New York state since 2001 and they wrote 269,230 tickets for improper cell phone usage that year alone. New Jersey just started July 1st.

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Washington, D.C. (Georgetown): "Sooner or later hard core cell phone users will get caught". WRONG. I use my regular cell phone all the time, and I speed through traffic all the time.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: I can't wait to meet you.

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Annapolis, Md.: I think your law is working pretty well. I had not been to D.C. in over a year and went there last week to catch up with a friend. The friend called me as I was pulling up to our meeting place and I answered my phone without thinking about the new law. Immediately I got honked at by two cars and the drivers motioned me about the phone. I would like to thank the drivers that warned me that I was wrong and probably saved me $100.

Inspector Kevin Keegan: Thank you. It's people like you that are going to help save lives by abiding by laws such as this.

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Inspector Kevin Keegan: I want to thank everybody for participating today and helpinng us all gain a greater understanding of a law that makes sense and will undoubtedly reduce injuries and save lives throught the reduction of crashes.

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