Md. hands-free law allows for emergencies

Saturday, November 27, 2010; 4:48 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

In the past, I've always called 911 to report seriously erratic driving and possible DUI situations. These calls often took a long time, as I would follow the vehicle at a safe distance and give police an accurate description of the vehicle, driver and location.

A few weeks ago, while driving on a high-speed road late at night in Maryland, I encountered a slow-moving car weaving in and out of the right lane. Either the driver was overly tired, or it was another case of DUI. In either case, the vehicle was a danger to other drivers on the road.

I started to press 9-1-1 on my cellphone, then remembered it was now illegal to drive and use a hand-held phone at the same time. Calling the police and providing them with the fact that I was still driving and using the phone would be confessing to a crime!

My choices: Either break the law, or pull over to the side of the road.

Knowing the very real hazards of parking on the shoulder of a highway, especially at night, made me think twice. I elected not to pull over and place the call.

- Bill McCoskey, Taneytown

Maryland police won't nail you for making a 911 call. The law that took effect Oct. 1 makes an exception for emergency calls. My problem with the law is that it's pretty weak and difficult to enforce.

In Maryland, the law is a secondary offense, so a law enforcement officer would have to stop a driver for some other reason before issuing the $40 ticket for a first offense on the cellphone ban. Still, there are related primary offenses including speeding and negligent driving that could lead to such a situation.

Part of the benefit of passing such a law - even as a secondary offense - is that it helps stigmatize the dangerous driving behavior. Virginia lacks a hands-free law, but AAA Mid-Atlantic and Transurban-Fluor, the consortium building the high-occupancy toll lanes along the Capital Beltway, have gotten the support of local officials and law enforcement in a safety awareness campaign they call "Orange Cones. No Phones."

The goal is to get drivers to put down their phones when driving through roadway work zones. In a way, the sponsors want to create work-free zones inside people's cars. They found in a survey that many motorists are using their phones for work, turning the Beltway into an office. So the campaign is asking employers to tell employees that it's okay to shut the phones off while they're driving.

McCoskey's scenario helps illustrate another safety issue. Of course, it's best to stop driving before using the cellphone, but make sure you're in a safe place. The shoulder of a highway may not be that place.

Dear Dr Gridlock:

I have been riding our subways for more than 30 years, and the biggest obstacle our system has is adaptation. When it comes to overcrowded cars, it was slow to modify design to hold more passengers safely and discourage congregating at the doors. The newest design works at rush hour and allows for easy boarding and exiting.

Now, escalators need the same kind of innovation. More than half our escalators are short distance mezzanine-to-platform ones that consume maintenance and energy needed for the longer distance mezzanine-to-surface escalators.

We cannot continue to have affordable rail transportation if we don't adapt to the size of our system and the ridership it carries. New York does not have this many escalators, nor could it. As you have stated over and over, no other subway system has this many escalators. Start by replacing these narrow escalators with wider staircases.

The simple truth is, most of us would rather walk a short set of stairs to a working set of escalators than be trapped in Rosslyn or Dupont Circle without any working escalators.

- Duane Reed, Rosslyn

Good idea. Metro's 588 escalators constitute an important part of the region's transit system, but they are aging and failing. It has become very clear over the past decade that the transit authority cannot keep up with the task of maintaining them. Reed's proposal would cut the burden on the maintenance staff while giving riders an alternative to squeezing up and down the out-of-service escalators.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: His blog: On Twitter: drgridlock.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company