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New D.C. Law Targets Distracted Drivers

As Hillites head home for the Fourth of July break this week they may want to pick up a hands-free device for their cellphones before returning to Washington.

Beginning July 1, the D.C. City Council’s new Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004 will go into effect. And although city police will only be giving out warning tickets for violations during the first month of the law, violators will soon be charged $100 a pop if caught using hand-held cellphones or performing a number of other activities while driving, including writing, plucking eyebrows, playing video games or essentially any other activities that take the driver’s hands off the steering wheel.

“The intent is to get people’s hands on the wheels of the cars they are driving,” said D.C. City Councilwoman Carol Schwartz (at-large), who helped augment the original act introduced by Councilmember Harold Brazil (at-large) which targeted just cellphones, to now include a wide array of distractions. “I’m sure there’s going to be mixed emotions about it, but I think most people agree it’s in the best interest of public safety.”

With 165 million cellphone users nationwide, the main thrust of the bill is still targeted at curbing hand-held cellphone usage while driving. One provision of the council’s bill suspends the $100 fine for first-time violators who provide proof of purchase of a hands-free accessory device prior to the imposition of the fine.

“This is about safety, not revenue,” Schwartz added, noting that just two weeks ago she was almost hit by a driver who was chatting on a phone and made a wide, one-handed turn at an intersection where she had stopped. “I hope we never make one nickel. I hope everyone gets a hands-free device.”

But according to Kim Kuo, spokesperson for the telecommunications lobbying association CTIA, The Wireless Association, encouraging hands-free devices is a step in the right direction but education about all the potential distractions during driving is the best way to keep motorists safe.

Noting that hand-held cellphone usage ranks from fifth to eighth on various lists of most common driving distractions — behind eating and drinking and adjusting the radio or CD player in a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study — Kuo said that “we don’t endorse banning drive-throughs or coffee cups, we support education on all those distractions. We’re much more in favor of a broad educational effort.

“You can’t see if someone is changing their radio or reaching in their purse, but it’s certainly easy to see someone talking away on their cellphone.”

Banning hand-held cellphone usage “seems like a quick fix, but it takes a lot more commitment and thought to really ease the problem through education,” she added.

Taking a lesson from the 20-some other states nationwide that now collect specific distraction-related data at the sight of an accident, one section of the council’s new bill directs the Metropolitan Police Department to include in accident reports whether a mobile telephone is present in a vehicle at the sight of a crash and whether the cellphone or another distraction might have contributed to the accident.