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Drivers texting despite laws, report shows

Fairfax County is kicking off a major enforcement effort targeting motorists who text while driving or engage in other forms of distracted driving. Police showed drivers what distractions can do to your driving on the Fairfax County Driver Training Track. And then Capt. Susan H. Culin, commander of the Fairfax traffic division, gave it a go.

They found that rather than a decline in texting-related collisions, "there appears to have been a small increase in claims in the states enacting texting bans" which "suggests that texting drivers have responded to the law . . . by hiding their phones from view."

"If this causes them to take their eyes off the road more than before the ban, then the bans may make texting more dangerous rather than eliminating it," the authors said.

Lund cautioned that "finding no reduction in crashes, or even a small increase, doesn't mean it's safe to text and drive. . . . It's just that bans aren't reducing this crash risk."

Although someone talking on a cellphone might be easier for a police officer to spot, the best hint that someone is engaged in text messaging usually is that they are looking at their lap, rather than the road. That makes enforcement a challenge.

That was illustrated by federally funded crackdowns this summer in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., both states that ban texting while driving and require drivers to use hands-free devices to make calls. Syracuse issued 4,172 citations to violators and 284 to texters. The results were similar in Hartford.

"Our reaction [to the institute report] is that we are not surprised as state enforcement of texting bans is really now just getting underway," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, at whose convention the report was presented. "The New York and Connecticut demos offer a lot of promise and we expect states to use what was learned.

"That said, there is not currently a federal pool of money for states to access for distracted driving enforcement much like there is for drunk driving and seat belt use," Adkins said. "Until more funding is available, we don't expect states to be able to undertake serious enforcement efforts comparable to what is done for drunk driving."

Text messaging while driving is banned in the District, Maryland and Virginia, although the Virginia law is so limited as to be unenforceable. Frustrated by the law, Fairfax County police recently announced that they would use an old statute requiring drivers to "pay full time and attention" to crack down on the texters.

Lon Anderson, mid-Atlantic spokesman for AAA, said the institute findings indicated the failure of state legislatures to provide law enforcement with effective laws.

"We have, unfortunately, set the police up for failure," he said. "Would good laws strictly enforced do the job? In our opinion, yes."

Anderson said it would take time for public opinion to get behind the distracted driving campaign.

"It took a couple of decades before people recognized the problem of drunk driving," he said. "We need to have a sea change on the part of drivers on this issue."

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