By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009
A bill introduced Wednesday in the Senate would require states to write laws to prohibit text messaging by drivers or risk losing 25 percent of their annual federal highway money.
The proposal, sponsored by a group of Democrats including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), came a day after the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a study on commercial truck drivers that found texting drivers to be 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or a near miss.
The legislation would set deadlines for Transportation Department regulators to devise minimum penalties for states to implement. States would have two years to enact their own laws.
Already, the District of Columbia and 13 states, including Virginia, have driver-texting bans in place or scheduled to become effective this year. Maryland's ban takes effect Oct. 1.
Safety experts say the District's five-year-old driver-cellphone ban offers a model of how to make such laws effective. A 2006 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed a significant decline in phone use by drivers in the District because of the ban. It fell 50 percent initially and remained at that level a year later.
In contrast, a similar ban in New York resulted in a comparable initial decline, but phone use had picked up again a year later, making the drop-off statistically insignificant.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute, said the difference may be the District's reputation for strong traffic enforcement. "If drivers don't perceive a high likelihood that they will be spotted and ticketed, they are unlikely to put down their phones," he said.
He said the institute is conducting a follow-up study that will delve more deeply into what caused the decline.
According to a report by the Insurance Institute, D.C.'s ban is enforced as a "primary law" -- police have the right to make stops solely on suspicions of phone use. Maryland's new texting prohibition also calls for primary enforcement. In Virginia, the texting ban is enforced on a "secondary" basis, meaning police must make a stop for another offense before they can write a texting ticket.
Vernon Betkey, a Maryland highway safety official and chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said any bans will be hampered by the inability to see inside cars at night and by problems in obtaining convictions.
"Trying to nail down erratic driving to a person texting will be a challenge for police officer," Betkey said. "Unless you can see them doing it, it will be difficult to prove."