The D.C. Council is expected to take up a bill on Tuesday that would crack down on distracted driving by increasing fines and taking away driving privileges for repeat offenders.
The measure would be a good thing, too, if not for its inability to address the most critical limitation to dealing with distracted driving: How do you enforce it? As things stand, the District’s bill is not much more than a wish, a collectively voiced expression of frustration.
“It’s great that we’re using this lever,” council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who heads the Transportation Committee, said Monday. “But the real thing is catching people. I mean, I see people doing that all the time. What I do is I wag my finger at them. Like, big deal — they give you the finger. It’s the enforcement: The penalties have to be conjoined with the likelihood of getting caught.”
The measure — introduced in January 2015 by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and other members — would amend the District’s 2004 law on distracted driving and put an end to the previous policy of offering a freebie to first-time offenders. There would be no more mulligans allowing drivers to avoid a fine the first time by showing that they had purchased a hands-free device.
Instead, fines would go from $100 for a first offense to $150 for the second offense. People who commit a third offense or more within an 18-month period would face a $200 fine and suspension of their driver’s license for 60 to 180 days. AAA-Mid-Atlantic, in a news release, says the proposal is a version of “three strikes and you’re out.”
The bill is a compromise from its initial draft, which would have imposed steeper fines — $200 for a second offense and $400 for a third and subsequent offenses — along with a temporary suspension of the vehicle’s registration. The initial version also would have put points on an offender’s license.
Cheh said the penalties have been stepped down amid concerns about fairness. She said committee members wanted to avoid something too harsh, especially for low-income drivers, while still ensuring that the penalties would act as a deterrent.
“I’ve found with our fines in general, that our fines are too high, and they’re perceived to be — and in fact are, at least personally thought of as — revenue raisers,” she said. “I think the fines ought to be better calibrated.”
The District issued 5,427 citations for distracted driving in 2014, down from a high of 14,580 in 2010, according to city police data obtained by AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Wayne E. McOwen, executive director of the District of Columbia Insurance Federation, said the bill is nonetheless a good first step in addressing a dangerous habit that everyone sees but no one is sure what to do about.
“I think there’s no question that texting is an issue,” McOwen said. “When I drive into the District occasionally, or drive around, if I had a dollar for everybody I saw on their phone, I’d take a serious vacation. Everybody is on their phone.”
But even supporters acknowledge that the measure will be effectively toothless until the police department comes up with the technology that would allow officers to determine whether the person they’ve stopped is a first-time or repeat offender.
AAA Mid-Atlantic — which supports the measure — also has raised doubts about whether the suspensions will be imposed on drivers who live outside the District.
What’s more, even after the technology goes online, it’s unclear whether the measure will have an effect. Despite years of public service campaigns and state-by-state legislation prohibiting cellphone use while driving, large numbers of drivers do it anyway.
If anything, things have gotten worse as drivers move from yakking on the phone to pecking out messages with their thumbs, sometimes while flying along in the fast lane. A short run on the Beltway suggests that the only way you’re likely to get caught is if you’re working two phones at once and tailgating a police cruiser.
“I think distracted driving is one of the most pernicious things you can do. . . . It’s the gravest issue on our roads,” AAA spokesman John B. Townsend II said. But, he added, the measure is unlikely to counteract that threat. “On paper, it looks good but, in reality, it’s a paper tiger.”
Read more of Tripping: