New York calls attention to a major driving hazard

November 05, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

FIRST, LET'S put parochialism aside and acknowledge that New York has done a great thing by becoming the first state to ban the use of hand-held cellular phones while driving.

If you get pulled over for yakking on a hand-held phone in New York, you'll get a warning until Dec. 1.

After that, first-time violators face a $100 fine. If they pop you again, it's a $200 fine. And additional violations could bring the fines up to $500.

Personally, I love this law.

In fact, I think the cops in New York should also be able to swat offending motorists on the back of the head with a rolled-up newspaper and bark: "What's wrong with you?! Don't you know you could get someone killed driving like that?!"

Anyway, not only should the great state of Maryland adopt a similar ban on cell phones while driving, we should take the whole thing a step further.

We should ticket all those numbskulls who insist on driving and applying makeup at the same time.

Or the ones studying a road map or thumbing through an address book or firing up a laptop while driving.

Or the ones eating a cheeseburger with one hand and attempting to dunk fries in a ketchup container with the other while they steer with their elbows.

In other words, if a police officer spots a motorist doing anything unsafe behind the wheel -- anything except concentrating on driving -- slap 'em with a ticket.

Of course, this'll probably never happen. You'd have motorists whining that their civil rights were being violated, and lawyers circling like buzzards to file lawsuits.

But at least for starters, Maryland should follow New York's lead and ticket drivers who use hand-held cell phones.

Because anyone who thinks this isn't dangerous should have his head examined.

Until last year, my wife and I were apparently the last persons on the planet who didn't own a cell phone.

Then we broke down and bought one. And because I do more driving than she does, we stuck the phone in my car, where it was to be used only for "emergencies."

About two days later, as I was leaving work and flying up the JFX, I decided I had a real emergency on my hands, the emergency being that I wanted to see if my wife wanted a pizza for dinner.

So I got out the phone and started dialing.

Which is when I discovered two significant facts about cell phones.

No. 1, when you get to be my age, it's hard to see the little numbers on the buttons without putting your glasses on.

And No. 2, you need fingers as tiny as the Keebler Elves' fingers in order to actually hit the little buttons when dialing.

Anyway, it was rush hour on a Friday evening and the JFX was bumper-to-bumper when I started fumbling with the stupid phone for the first time.

At one point, I was looking down, trying to see if I had dialed a 4 and a 1 and a 0, when a voice inside my head whispered: "Maybe you should glance up at the road. Just to, y'know, see if anything's going on."

So I did.

Which is when I saw the tail-lights of a white Toyota Camry about five feet in front of me.

At which point I slammed on the brakes, nearly went through the windshield and came to a stop about, oh, one micron from the Camry's bumper.

That was the last time I tried driving and dialing a cell phone at the same time.

To me, it`s like driving and juggling bowling pins.

Or driving and doing the limbo.

It's just something you shouldn`t do unless you want to cause an accident.

Anyway, when I heard about the New York cell phone law going into effect, I called Del. John S. Arnick, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored a similar bill that died a quiet death in Annapolis a while ago.

I was all hopped up on this idea of ticketing motorists who do stupid things behind the wheel like apply lipstick, check their stocks on their laptops, etc.

We couldn`t get a law like that passed? I asked Arnick.

"Nah," he said. "If they just totally enforced the negligent driving laws, it would probably solve the problem. But you can't cover everything."

In fact, he said, Maryland has only "a fair shot" of passing a law that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

This plunged me into an immediate depression, as it should all motorists who enjoy hitting the open highway without a distracted driver -- perhaps some pinhead in the middle of ordering a pizza on his cell phone -- plowing into them.

I can hear the pinhead now: "Yes, I said extra pepperoni . . . oops!"

And then his air-bag inflates.

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