Cell phone ban's effectiveness remains to be seen
Other states report little enforcement information
While drivers in Maryland are expected to stop using their hand-held cell phones on the road as of today, the mobile ban's potential effectiveness remains uncertain.
Only eight states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands have bans on hand-held cell phone use by motorists, and very little data on how the bans make roads safer are available.
In Washington, D.C., which has prohibited drivers from texting, talking and performing other "distracting" tasks since 2004, more than 9,000 citations have been written for cell phone use this year.
Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief Patrick Burke said it is too early to tell how much the law has contributed to preventing fatal crashes, but, combined with speed cameras, the cell phone ban is likely making a difference.
The department has issued more than 60,000 citations for "distracted driving" since the law's inception, he said.
"It's so pervasive, I think the challenge is not having time to enforce more of these violations," he said.
In New Jersey, where texting and talking on a cell phone became a primary offense in March 2008, officers write 10,000 citations a month.
Pam Fischer, director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, said the number is impressive, but many in her state are still texting and using hand-held phones on the road.
"We know that it's helped with compliance with a certain segment of the population," she said. "There are certain people who say, Well, it's illegal, I'm not going to do it.'"
Inattentive driving has received national attention of late; U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is making it a priority of his administration. He hosted the second Distracted Driving Summit last week in Washington, D.C.
Transportation safety advocates hope to have more answers and proof that cell phone bans can save lives following increased enforcement in Connecticut and New York.
During one round of crackdowns in July, Connecticut officers issued more than 23,000 citations for cell phone use in three municipalities within a week.
Vernon F. Betkey Jr., chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association and director of the Maryland Highway Safety Office, said he hopes increased enforcement in those states will help guide changes to the Maryland law.
"We have a golden opportunity to take a real systematic approach to this and get things done," he said.
In 2008, some 23,707 crashes were caused by inattentive driving in Maryland, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. Those crashes resulted in 35 deaths and 11,636 injuries.
Unlike in Connecticut, Maryland's hand-held ban is a secondary offense, meaning drivers must commit another violation while talking on their phone to be pulled over and cited. Texting while driving in Maryland, however, is a primary offense, which allows officers to cite drivers for texting alone.
The secondary-offense statute weakens the law, Burke said, making it difficult for officers to enforce.
In Washington, distracted driving behaviors are considered a primary offense.
"That's a huge help for us," Burke said. "Once again, I don't have to find a reason to stop somebody. That makes the job easy for law enforcement."
Maryland's secondary ban is a step in the right direction, Fischer said.
"The legislature is recognizing that it's a problem," she said. They are putting something in place. The challenge, then, is for the safety advocacy groups [to lobby for more restrictive laws]."
New Jersey's ban was a secondary offense from 2003 to 2008, yielding few results and influencing legislators to strengthen the law, Fischer said.
"We demonstrated, look, we have a secondary ban, it did little for compliance if anything," she said.
Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Dist. 6) of Dundalk, who authored both Maryland's hand-held and texting bans, could not be reached for comment.
As for advocating changes to Maryland's law, transportation safety experts will have to wait for more results, Betkey said.
"I think we have to look at how we do with the existing one, check the effectiveness of that, before we start making changes," he said.
HANG UP AND DRIVE
These are the provisions of a state law that, beginning today, bans hand-held phone use by drivers.
-No hand-held phone use while driving unless making an emergency call to 911 or to police, fire and rescue services or a hospital. Receiving an emergency call from police, fire and rescue services or a hospital is allowed.
-Starting or ending a call and switching a phone on or off are allowed.
-Violation is a secondary offense, meaning police must stop the driver for another offense (e.g. negligent driving, failure to obey traffic sign, etc.).
-Penalties: $40 first offense, $100 thereafter
-One point on license for second and subsequent offenses. Three points on license if hand-held phone use contributes to a crash.
NOTE: Texting while driving already is a primary offense, as is mobile phone use by a driver younger than 18.