Drivers in Md. risk cell tickets

By Ashley Halsey III Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; B3

Drivers in Maryland will be required to use hands-free cellphone equipment as of Friday, but the ban on driving with a phone glued to your ear is the least-enforceable law of its kind in the nation.

The law requires that police have some other primary reason to stop a car before they can issue a $40 ticket for using a hand-held cellphone. Just seven other states and the District allow drivers to be pulled over for that violation alone.

"Laws that are secondary are better than doing nothing, but not much better," said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization of state highway officials. "They are difficult to enforce and send a message to drivers that this isn't a serious issue. The benefit of a secondary law is really an educational benefit as these laws generally are not enforceable."

That educational benefit was evident Friday at a Target store in Bowie. Racks for most lower-priced hands-free devices had been stripped nearly clean. All of the customers who paused to talk said they were aware of the new law.

"I didn't know the date, but I did know about the law," Lynford Morton said as he strolled toward the entrance with a phone in hand. "I have a hands-free [device]. Yeah, I think it does make a difference."

Calvin Jacob said he'd been alerted to the law by an overhead message sign on nearby Route 50.

"I will get one because I need it in my other car," he said, explaining that his primary car came equipped with an audio system that accommodates hands-free cellphone use. "I think everyone should have one."

Debra Van Deventer said she's not a cellphone junkie and simply "won't talk when I'm driving" once the law takes effect.

Whether using a hands-free phone significantly reduces the risk of an accident is still under discussion in the rapidly growing body of research that has emerged since U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood launched a crusade against distracted driving more than a year ago.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University used brain scans to determine that simply listening to someone on the phone creates a 37 percent reduction in the amount of brain activity devoted to driving. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cited accident statistics and research with driving simulators in concluding that once a conversation begins, hands-free phones are no less risky.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute moved beyond a laboratory setting, using studies that put cameras and in-car instruments to track more than 6 million miles of driving. Use of headsets, they concluded, is not much safer, because they still require a hand to dial, answer and look up numbers.

They determined that "true hands-free" phones that respond to voice activation are less risky if their design allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road.

An estimated 270 million cellphones are in use nationally, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that 11 percent of drivers are using them at any given moment. NHTSA said this month that distracted driving led to 448,000 accidents and 5,474 highway deaths last year.

Those statistics, however, are subject to variance in state data collection methods, and seven states don't collect such data at all. A recent driver survey by State Farm Insurance found that 62 percent of drivers said they talked on the phones, 23 percent said they read text messages and 16 percent said they sent text messages.

In passing the new Maryland law last winter, the state legislature reduced the proposed fines from $100 for a first offense and $250 for a second, to $40 and $100 respectively. The violation carries no points unless hand-held use is the cause of an accident.

Maj. Andy Ellis of the Prince George's County police and Capt. Paul Starks of the Montgomery County police agreed that a secondary law is challenging to enforce.

"Officers who do see someone talking on the phone will make an attempt," Starks said, "but they also must see a primary offense, like speeding."

Both men, veterans of their departments, recalled that the first seat-belt laws in the state were a secondary-enforcement offense and were later amended to make them primary.

"Maybe the cellphone law will evolve like that, too, once the legislature tests this out," Ellis said.

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