WASHINGTON – Playing with a dog,putting on makeup and reading the paper while driving will soon become illegal in the Nation's Capital,under a law adopted this week that also mandates hands-free cell phone use.
The D.C. Council approved the legislation Tuesday. It's one of the few laws specifically covering such behavior,according to a spokesman for AAA,the automobile club.
“The title of the bill is ‘distracted driver' and those are all activities that could be construed as possible distractions,” said Mark F. Johnson,press secretary for Council Chair Linda W. Cropp. “Anything that takes the driver's attention away from the road is a distraction.”
The Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2003,if signed by the mayor,will go into effect July 1. First-time offenders would receive a warning. Second-time offenders would be subject to a $100 fine.
“Overall the mayor approves of this bill,” said Tony Bullock,press secretary for Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Bullock said,however,that the parts of the bill not related to cell phone use are “fuzzy.”
“I think they tried to add something for critics from the cell phone industry who said that using a cell phone isn't any more dangerous than eating a Big Mac or reading or putting on lipstick,” Bullock said. “They tried to broaden the bill to address the criticism that they were sectioning out one type of distraction.”
A similar law was passed in 2001 in Sandy,Utah,where only 78 citations have been issued for “inattentive driving,” said Sgt. Michelle Burnette of the Sandy Police Department.
“When talking to officers,a lot of times a distraction will be the cause of an accident,but they give a citation for the accident or infraction and give the driver a warning,” she said. “The statistics probably don't show the accurate number of incidents.”
Burnette said the law is a good tool to demonstrate to drivers how easily they can become distracted.
In New Hampshire,drivers can be ticketed for participating in activities that are deemed negligent and dangerous.
“Our law is purposely vague,” said Lt. Susan Forey,commander of the Special Services of the New Hampshire State Police. “The whole reason for it is that any person driving in a way that potentially harms any person or property can be held accountable.”
So far all the negligent driving citations Forey knows of have been issued over the use of a cell phone. She noted that negligent driving could also include eating,drinking,shaving or even having sex.
“Officers are happy … because it helps them summons people who are doing things they shouldn't be doing while they are driving,” Forey said.
A survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2002 reported that 8 percent of drivers use a cell phone during the majority of their driving.
“There is plenty of research that shows that the distraction is the conversation,not the cell phone,” said Johnathan Adkins,spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association,a nonprofit that is concerned with the “human behavioral aspects” of driving.
Adkins said that drivers are more distracted by the emotions of a conversation than the use of a cell phone.
“The best thing to do is for drivers not to talk on cell phones at all. We'd like to see that,” he said.
The tricky part for police officers will be to determine whether drivers were actually distracted at the time of their accident or traffic violation.
“It will be extremely hard to enforce the law. Law enforcement already had their hands full after 9/11 especially in the D.C. area,” Adkins said. “It's very hard to prove that crash is caused by a distraction.”
D.C. residents had had mixed reactions.
“I am pleased that we approved a bill… mandating that drivers use a hands-free device to make calls,” said Carol Schwartz,the D.C. council member who introduced the bill. “We cater to 3 million people on any given work day,within 68 square miles,and so we need our drivers focused on driving.”
Mike Pearce,a 21-year-old bike messenger,also approved. His life depends on drivers paying full attention to the road.
“I think it's a great idea,” said Pearce,a D.C. resident for three years. “You should always be attentive to the road,especially in a populated city.”
“Every day something happens that someone does because they aren't paying attention,” said Pearce,who uses a hands-free cell phone for work. “Especially when they are distracted and then they realize that I'm there and then they get mad.”
Not everyone is convinced the law is a good idea.
“I think it's almost unenforceable,” said Robert Beeaulieu,who owns the Post Pub,a Washington restaurant. “You might get a couple of tickets a year,but I'm not sure you could enforce it.”