In One Ear, Out the Other for D.C. Drivers

A man talks on a hand-held cell phone while driving in the District, where drivers can be fined $100 for using such devices.
A man talks on a hand-held cell phone while driving in the District, where drivers can be fined $100 for using such devices. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

It's the law that nearly everyone supports -- and nearly everyone ignores. In the year and a half since the District began restricting drivers' cell phone use, police say they have issued thousands of tickets to violators. But for every driver silenced with a $100 fine, many others are still out there talking on hand-held phones, casually disregarding the law.

"Everybody does it," said Ann Edwards, a retiree who lives on Capitol Hill, "and I think it's dangerous."

The lack of compliance is common talk in the city. On radio talk shows, callers often complain about drivers weaving down streets with cell phones stuck to their ears. Many say they spot police officers violating the law. On his monthly WTOP call-in show, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey is often challenged about his commitment to enforcing it. He said officers ticket people all the time.

"The numbers bear that out -- if they see it, they write it," Ramsey said in a recent interview. "Sometimes an officer uses discretion. I don't know if they're going to stop for a cell phone when they're going to a robbery in progress. Sometimes things get busy."

And Ramsey urged people to report any officers they see breaking the law.

Last year, D.C. police officers issued 6,018 tickets for driving with a hand-held cell phone, said Lt. Byron Hope of the Traffic Safety and Special Enforcement Branch. This January, 370 tickets were issued, he said. Police began enforcing the law in August 2004.

Reaction to D.C.'s law -- one of the first in the country -- shows how ambivalent the public is about having anything, even safety, interfere with the beloved cell phone. And it underscores how completely, and in such a short time, the device has come to dominate people's lives. Cell phone users in the United States have increased from 34 million a decade ago to more than 203 million, according to CTIA -- the Wireless Association, and the debate about the technological phenomenon has only begun.

At least 25 state legislatures are considering restrictions on cell phone use while driving, many aimed at young drivers. But an argument is growing that laws requiring hands-free devices might contribute to hazards by encouraging drivers to talk longer. The emphasis on cell phones also discounts other activities that take people's eyes and minds off the road.

"The real issue is driving while distracted," Ramsey said. "The cell phone has just been the poster child."

The automobile group AAA agrees, urging drivers to use cell phones only in emergencies and saying the rush to enact new laws is "probably sending the wrong message," said spokesman Mantill Williams.

"It's almost like a useless law to a certain extent," Williams said. "It sounds good, and politicians love it because it makes it sound like they're doing something. But hands free is not risk free. It's not a safety device; it's just a convenience device."

New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the District have the most restrictive laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, Maryland legislators prohibited drivers younger than 18 from using any cell phone. This year, a Virginia bill that would prohibit 16- and 17-year-olds from talking on the phone while driving passed the state Senate but was killed in a House subcommittee. The Senate killed a bill this session to require hands-free phones for all drivers.

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