By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009; B02
If you're driving the Beltway in heavy traffic, chances are that a driver in the next lane, directly ahead of you or in your rearview mirror is reading or writing a text message, officials in Virginia said Monday.
"If you think you're safe on the Capital Beltway, think again," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA. "We have an epidemic of distracted driving out there."
Anderson joined Virginia officials and police Monday in the first of several events this week that will address talking on cellphones and text messaging on the nation's highways. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will host a two-day seminar on distracted beginning Wednesday in Washington.
An issue has crossed a certain threshold in American culture when it spawns a plethora of bumper stickers, and cellphone use while driving has achieved that. Two seen this weekend in Northern Virginia: "Hang up and drive," and "Guns don't kill people, cellphones kill people."
Almost 90 percent of Americans own cellphones, and one national survey found that eight in 10 drivers talk on their phones while behind the wheel, about 1 million of them at any given moment. Cellphone use has been cited as a factor in an estimated 342,000 auto accident injuries.
Despite an awareness that distracted drivers are a hazard, many Americans continue to use cellphones and text while driving. When AAA recently studied the habits of Beltway drivers in Virginia, the group found that more than half of drivers used their cell phones on Interstate 495 every day, and a quarter of them send or receive text messages daily.
Anderson said they found that more than half of Beltway drivers are distracted by cellphone use and that those drivers are twice as likely to have an accident or a "near-miss."
AAA last week urged all state governments to ban texting while driving. It currently is banned in the District and Virginia, while Maryland's ban will take effect Thursday. The Governors Highway Safety Association, a national nonprofit organization which represents state safety offices, has endorsed a ban on texting and using cellphones for newly licensed drivers.
AAA took on the issue in Virginia in collaboration with the company that is building high-occupancy toll lanes along the 14-mile stretch of construction on the Beltway between the Springfield interchange and the Dulles Toll Road.
"Even the most veteran Beltway driver can get caught off-guard" by construction, said Tim Steinhilber, general manager of the $2 billion project being built by Fluor-Transurban.
Since construction began last year on the HOT lanes, accidents along that heavily traveled corridor have increased by 10 percent, according to Lt. Col. Robert B. Northern of the Virginia State Police. He said the number of accidents resulting in injury jumped by 19 percent.
"I was trying to watch people on my way over here, and everybody was on the phone," Northern said at the event in McLean. "The worst was a young man with both hands on top of the [steering] wheel with his BlackBerry and both thumbs were going to town."