The D.C. Council advanced a bill Tuesday that would position the District to have one of the toughest distracted-driving laws in the country, levying a graduated system of fines on repeat offenders and imposing license suspensions on those convicted of a third infraction in 18 months.
But the measure, set for a final vote next month, faces steep challenges — even if it passes, supporters and advocacy groups say.
For example, D.C. police do not have a system for tracking prior offenses in real time, and the District does not expect to have the funds to support the bill’s implementation until fiscal 2020 — even if it is adopted in 2017.
“There is a reason to get [D.C. police] to have the technology, and it’s not just for this,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who heads the panel’s transportation committee. “Other bills have come through where we want to have a graduated fine system. This may help provoke moving more quickly with that.”
What also is unclear is how effective the measure would be at rooting out distracted driving. Observers were wary of the focus on repeat offenders.
Still, they say, tougher penalties are an important step, particularly as cars are equipped with more and more technology.
“Distracted driving is an epidemic level of an issue for our community,” said Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “I think that anybody who kind of pays attention to people you’re riding in a car with, to taxi drivers, to people if you’re walking or biking and you notice drivers — everybody is distracted. . . . As cars are being developed, they’re including more distractions built into them.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) introduced the resolution.
Under the bill, distracted-driving penalties would escalate for repeat violations within an 18-month period. Drivers would be fined $100 the first time they were caught using a cellphone while driving, $150 for a subsequent offense and $200 for a third violation. Three-time offenders would also face a license suspension of 30 to 90 days.
The current penalty is a $100 fine, but first-time offenders who show proof of acquiring a hands-free device are eligible to have the fine suspended. The new law would eliminate that provision.
Earlier versions of the bill called for tougher fines and harsher punishments: a $200 fine for a second violation and a $400 fine for a third, along with a license suspension of 60 to 180 days. That version also would have assessed points to the offender’s driver’s license.
Cheh said those penalties were too harsh.
“These things were a little over the top,” she said. “It’s a concern I have overall — we don’t have any real good data showing cause and effect of a more draconian fine. It comes down hard on people who may have an inability to pay.”
The District handed out more than 100,000 distracted-driving tickets between 2004 and 2014, issuing an average of 7,000 per year, according to statistics from AAA Mid-Atlantic.
But AAA, while it supports the measure, is skeptical of its potential effectiveness. A spokesman called it a “paper tiger.”
“My concern is that we’re focusing on the wrong thing,” AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II said in an interview. “Just focusing on the repeat violator, which is a small problem, is not to focus on the larger problem, which is how protracted and pernicious and pandemic distracted driving is,” he said.
Townsend also said the legislation made it unclear whether drivers who commit distracted-driving violations in different jurisdictions — with differing laws — would be subject to the escalating penalties if they commit an offense in the District.
Others expressed concerns that enforcement of existing distracted-driving laws is not consistent.
WABA’s Billing noted that data collected by his group shows that enforcement of distracted-driving penalties had decreased by nearly half. While the District handed out 8,372 distracted-driving tickets in 2012, that number had decreased to 5,793 by 2014, according to District Department of Motor Vehicles figures obtained by WABA. And repeat offenders represented a narrow slice of that field: 246 offenses in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available.
“It doesn’t seem that it’s going to have the effectiveness and the outcome that we hope, and I hope that it’s just one of many provisions that we would look at for distracted driving,” he said.
WABA had pushed for the window for offenses to be five years, citing the improbability of someone being convicted of three offenses in 18 months, given the nature of the court system.
Cheh conceded that the legislation is not a “panacea.”
“I have no illusions that this is going to solve or materially change behavior,” Cheh said. “It may have some effect, some good effect. . . . It could be helpful.”
Billing put it this way: “I think it’s a start, and we’ve got a long way to go.”
At the same hearing Tuesday, the council unanimously approved legislation calling on Metro to restore late-night service at the conclusion of its SafeTrack rebuilding program. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Metro board of directors, introduced the resolution. A public hearing on the matter is set for Oct. 20.