Maryland to start ticketing for cellphone use while driving

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Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield,Metro and Traffic

Marylanders soon will be ticketed for texting or talking on a mobile phone while driving under a new law, but studies show such crackdowns on phone use do little to prevent traffic accidents.

The new law means drivers who are emailing, texting or talking without a hands-free device can be pulled over and issued a $100 ticket just for using their phones. Currently, they have to be pulled over for committing a different offense to get a ticket for phone use.

Maryland will join nine other states and the District in having drivers pulled over for talking on their phones starting Oct. 1. Though studies show that while such bans lead to more tickets issued, they don't lead to a reduction in crashes.

"That was the surprising finding of the research done by the institute," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducted such a study. "There are a myriad of issues here, but one issue is that distracted driving is not new. It goes well beyond use of phones and electronic devices.

Focusing on phone use may ultimately not be an effective strategy for improving safety on the road."

In the Washington area, the District is the only jurisdiction that currently pulls drivers over for using their phones. It passed that law in 2004 and has issued 95,268 tickets for distracted driving -- 87,851 of which were due to cellphone use.

Information on traffic accidents caused by distracted driving was not available as of Monday.

A 2009 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that the frequency of insurance collision claims did not change after D.C. passed its cellphone driving ban. The study showed that the frequency paralleled those in Maryland and Virginia -- states that did not have similar bans at the time -- while there was no statistical difference in the District before and after the ban's passage.

However, such laws make it easier to enforce bans on texting while driving, advocates say.

"With texting laws, it's hard to do enforcement without a primary handheld cellphone ban because it's hard for an officer to determine if someone is just dialing their phone or texting," said Kara Macek, a spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Maryland's law allows drivers to talk on their phones if they use a hands-free device, like a Bluetooth headset. However, Rader said talking on a headset can be just as distracting as holding a phone. He said systems that alert drivers when they are getting too close to an object in front of them or when they are leaving a lane would be better to protect against distracted driving.

"They're quickly being introduced in luxury cars, but they'll soon be in mainstream cars too," he said. "Many of these systems are aimed at alerting a distracted driver and bringing their attention back to the road."

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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