Md. cellphone bill part of national safety effort

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

The Maryland House plans to vote Friday on a bill to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

The legislation -- which has passed the state Senate -- is seen as an indication that the focus on distracted driving has switched from text-messaging to the far more pervasive practice of phoning behind the wheel.

That shift surfaced in three different places this week: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood launched a pilot program under the slogan "Phone in one hand, ticket in the other," and the prestigious National Safety Council joined with another advocacy group in calling for drivers to give up their cellphones.

The most influential voice to weigh in on the subject was that of entertainer Oprah Winfrey, who proclaimed April 30 as "No Phone Zone Day," with anti-cellphone rallies in the District, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles.

"A call or text isn't worth taking a life," Winfrey said in a joint announcement with LaHood. "We must not allow more mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers to die before we take action against distracted driving."

LaHood added, "We know that if we can get people to put away cellphones and other electronic devices when they are behind the wheel, we can save thousands of lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of injuries every year."

LaHood's crusade against distracted driving began with an attack on texting, but it's long been apparent that the ultimate showdown would come over cellphone use.

The National Safety Council has estimated that cellphone use is responsible for 1.6 million crashes a year, about 28 percent of the national total. The NSC has joined with the group FocusDriven to promote cellphone-free driving.

The NSC also cites studies that show that requiring use of hands-free cellphones -- the step that Maryland might take Friday -- does not reduce crashes.

"Cellphone driving has become a serious public threat," the NSC said in a report issued last month. "A few states have passed legislation making it illegal to use a handheld cellphone while driving. These laws give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe."

The NSC pointed to volumes of research that found that regardless of whether a phone is hand-held or hands-free, a cellphone conversation distracts a driver and delays reaction time when a traffic incident occurs.

"Estimates indicate drivers using cellphones look at but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment," the NSC said.

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