Tickets Might Be Helping D.C. Cellphone Law Sink In

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stand on a busy corner in the District, and you'll notice that cellphones appear glued to the ears of dozens of passing drivers who openly flout the city's ban on hand-held phone use.

That appearance is deceiving, according to a new study, which concludes that use of hand-helds would be 43 percent higher were it not for the District's ban and the vigor with which police have enforced it.

Yes, vigor: 7,519 warnings and 12,936 tickets were issued in the District last year.

The findings by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety resonate with safety experts as they debate how to police the use of cellphones and text messaging devices they believe are responsible for 636,000 crashes that result in 2,600 deaths, 342,000 injuries and a financial toll of $43 billion each year.

In a nation where so many drivers have become wedded to their cellphones -- federal statistics show that about 812,000 drivers are using them at any given moment during daylight hours -- the effectiveness of laws to restrict them has been likened to enforcing the speed limit.

The insurance institute, a nonprofit research group funded by auto insurers, sent observers into the streets this spring in the District and two other jurisdictions that pioneered the ban on use of hand-held phones. The work replicated research conducted by the institute before the D.C. ban took effect in 2004, and then at three months and 15 months after the new ordinance.

Researchers concluded that hand-held use dropped by 41 percent immediately and five years later remains 43 percent below where it would have been without the ban based on statistical models. Both New York state and Connecticut recorded sharper declines in use just after their hand-held bans took effect, but more people resumed using them in those states with the passage of time. "It appeared that stronger enforcement of the D.C. ban may have led to the sustained lower use rates compared with New York," the study says. Five other states also have banned use of hand-held phones for drivers.

The District gave out 28,676 tickets in the 30 months ending December 2008. At $100 a pop -- if everybody paid the fine -- that's gross revenue of $2.86 million. (That doesn't include the 10 D.C. school bus drivers who were ticketed for cellphone use during that period.)

Twice as many tickets are handed out during the warmer months -- with a peak of 1,966 in August 2008 -- and there has been a consistent volume over time. In the first four months of this year, 3,227 drivers received a ticket, 51 fewer than during the same period last year and 378 more than in 2007.

Although the study indicates that the use of hand-held phones can be reduced if police hand out enough tickets to those who violate a ban, more than 120 studies of cellphone use suggest that requiring hands-free devices doesn't eliminate the distraction caused by a phone conversation.

Those studies have found that after a conversation has begun, drivers using hands-free phones are just as likely to have decreased reaction times, swerve in traffic or get into accidents.

The insurance institute also underscored concerns raised last month when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood convened a two-day seminar on distracted driving. Although it's possible to spot violators using hand-held phones, bans on text messaging and hands-free phone use are a challenge to enforce.

"Enforcement or court officials could obtain cellphone billing records of a driver involved in a crash," the study says, "but general traffic enforcement of a hands-free ban would be nearly impossible."

Technology has emerged to block cell transmissions while a vehicle is in motion, but the report questioned whether it can be made practical for widespread use.

"For example, some systems have a passenger override to allow a passenger to use the cellphone while the vehicle is in motion," the report says. "It's unclear whether drivers can be prevented from activating the passenger mode to circumvent the purpose of the system."

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