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Md. cellphone bill part of national safety effort

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010; B05

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.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also questioned the effectiveness of hands-free requirements. The nonprofit organization found no drop in the number of crashes in four jurisdictions that imposed bans on hand-held phone use, including the District.

Since no state has imposed a total ban on cellphone use, the pilot program LaHood announced Thursday involves crackdowns in two of the six states which prohibit handheld phones.

The campaign in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., takes a lesson from earlier highway safety efforts: It threatens punishment -- a ticket -- to encourage good behavior. The seat-belt slogan "Buckle Up for Safety" proved a memorable dud, but "Click It or Ticket" is viewed as a success.

The "Phone in one hand, ticket in the other" advertising campaign, funded with federal money, will air in both cities this month to coincide with heightened police efforts to catch violators.

Winfrey said several celebrities -- including Sandra Bullock, Jeff Bridges, Mo'Nique, Jerry Seinfeld and Raquel Welch -- had joined her effort to get drivers to take a "No Phone Zone" pledge April 30, when she will devote her show to the issue.

The recent NSC report addressed a question often asked about cellphone use: Why is talking on a cellphone more distracting than a conversation with a passenger? Drawing on more than 30 studies, the NSC concluded:

"Passengers tend to suppress conversation when driving conditions are demanding. Talking on cellphones has a different social expectation because not responding on a cellphone can be considered rude. In addition, callers cannot see when a driving environment is challenging and cannot suppress conversation in response. Passengers can see the roadway and may moderate the conversation."

The report found that some passenger conversations can be distracting, as can listening to loud music.

"But when the same drivers talk on cellphones, they do have a slower response time," the NSC said.

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