Student-drivers accustomed to talking on their cell phones behind the wheel may soon see financial penalties that have nothing to do with their monthly minutes.
The Distracted Driving Safety Act, which was passed by the City Council in January and took effect this summer, prohibits drivers from talking directly into mobile phones and other electronic devices. Police began charging violators with $100 fines Aug. 1 after a month-long warning period.
Commuters can still talk on their cell phones using a hands-free accessory, defined by the law as any device that allows the operator of the vehicle to keep two hands on the steering wheel. Exceptions are made for emergency calls.
D.C. officials said the new law was needed to prevent accidents that occur when drivers are distracted by handheld gadgets.
“With technology evolving the way it is, you have more and more devices coming out that require you to take your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road,” said Metropolitan Police Inspector Kevin Keegan, who helps oversee traffic safety in the city. “It can all cause a lot of distraction.”
The law, which resembles statutes recently passed in New York and New Jersey, is the product of years of lobbying by Councilman Harold Brazil.
After several public hearings and discussions with driving safety experts, Brazil introduced the Responsible Use of Cell Phones Act in early 2003, which would become the model for the 2004 bill. The law may be two months old, but the community response to the cell phone legislation has been positive, said Shana Heilbron, a spokeswoman for Brazil.
“People are often very fast to criticize when they don’t like a certain law, and we haven’t really had any of that,” Heilbron said. “A lot of people are really pleased that an effort is being made to make our streets safer.”
Citing a New England Journal of Medicine study that claimed a driver is four times more likely to cause an accident when talking on a cell phone, Heilbron said the law was necessary given the level of distraction electronic devices can cause. According to a statement from Brazil’s office, about 80 percent of cellular customers in the U.S. use their phones while driving.
Although some independent observers called the law a step forward for traffic safety, others questioned whether using a headset while talking on a phone significantly decreases the level of distraction.
“We’re not sure that the remedy they’re proposing – using a hands-free device – is really the solution,” said Lon Anderson, director of public and government relations for the American Automobile Association. “What’s causing the distraction is not the cell phone but the conversation the driver is holding.”
Others said the law might promote a double standard. Cingular Wireless regional spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman said distracted driving is an important issue but noted that the use of cell phones is just one of many activities that can increase the likelihood of an accident.
“Singling out a cell phone instead of something like eating a fast food lunch while driving down the highway is a little bit unfair,” Kaufman said. “The main issue is using responsible behavior on the road.”
Though the bill’s language specifically mentions mobile telephones, supporters are quick to point out that the legislation was broadened to include a full range of distracting activities, including eating.
“This bill is not just for cell phones. It’s for distracted driving,” Heilbron said. “There are lots of things that can distract a driver in the vehicle.”
The extent to which the new law is enforced has yet to be documented. Both Heilbron and MPD officials said statistics detailing the number of fines issued to date are unavailable. Keegan, of MPD, said drivers will rarely be pulled over solely for using a cell phone and that the $100 cell phone fine is one of many citations that can be given to erratic drivers.
“This is one of the many violations out there, so we’re not entirely focused on just this,” Keegan said. “But once it becomes obvious, you’re going to see officers citing people for (using electronic devices) more and more.”