Maryland hands-free law takes effect Friday

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 12:01 AM

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.

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