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State highway officials put aside proposal for total ban on drivers' cellphone use

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 12:01 AM

Doubting that a proposed total ban on cellphone use behind the wheel could be enforced, the nation's highway safety officials Sunday declined to endorse a prohibition.

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The vote is a telling moment in the debate over use of distracting electronic devices while driving. Alhough safety advocates, including the National Safety Council, have called for a total ban on drivers using cellphones, the GHSA is a better bellwether of the political and public will to embrace stiffer restrictions.

It is an organization of state highway safety officials, and their idealism may be tempered by the political reality facing the governors who appoint them and the legislatures they serve.

The reality is that Americans are "addicted" to their cellphones, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has been crusading against distracted driving.

Thirty states and the District have outlawed text messaging while driving, and the District, Maryland and seven other states have passed prohibitions on use of handheld cellphones. But no state has yet banned all cellphone conversations while driving.

Whether laws can be enforced remains an open question, Adkins said, and the GHSA will continue to gather research on the issue with an eye toward revisiting the ban proposal.

The federal government funded pilot programs this summer in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., cities in states where texting while driving is banned and drivers must use hands-free devices to make calls. They found that it is relatively easy to catch a driver with a hand-held phone, but more difficult to spot someone texting. In Syracuse, they issued 4,172 citations to violators of the hands-free law and 284 to texters. The results were similar in Hartford.

The AAA auto group's affiliate in Southern California determined that police were ineffective in enforcing a ban on texting. A roadside survey at seven locations found that the number of drivers doing it had almost doubled in the 19 months since the state banned texting. The use of handheld phones, also banned, had remained unchanged.

There is something of a paradox in public opinion, one that reflects LaHood's pronouncement of a national addiction. A survey out last week by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 62 percent of people think cellphone conversations while driving pose a very serious safety threat, but at the same time, 70 percent said they use their own phones while on the road.

In a Washington Post poll earlier this year, 80 percent of the region's drivers said they often notice distracted driving, and a majority said they used their cellphones while driving, but only 16 percent admitted they are regularly distracted.

Almost 90 percent of Americans own cellphones, and the NSC estimates they are used by 100 million drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 812,000 drivers are using them at any given moment during daylight hours. The NHTSA reported this month that distracted driving led to 448,000 accidents and 5,474 highway deaths last year.

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