Hands - and minds - free

July 01, 2004

CLARIFICATION

An editorial on Wednesday implied that the Capital Beltway is included in the District of Columbia's ban on hand-held cellular phones. It is not.

WHILE IT'S GREAT that Type-A Washington drivers are no longer allowed to scream into their cell phones while they share the Capital Beltway with the rest of the mob, that's just a first step in returning safety and sanity to the roads. After all, they can still scream into their headsets.

With laws taking effect today, D.C. and New Jersey have joined New York in requiring car phoners to use hands-free devices. For a month, Washington police will stop motorists with phones in their hands and warn them of the new law, then in August, they will start issuing $100 tickets. Officers and emergency workers will maintain phone-holding privileges. Motorists who are in emergencies are allowed to hold a phone to call for help.

Improving drivers' road awareness can only help. Driver distraction may be to blame in as many as 30 percent of the 3 million crashes that happen each year, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Businesses such as ExxonMobil and Progressive Insurance have ordered their employees to stay off the phone unless safely parked, both for their workers' safety and to avoid adding to the growing number of lawsuits against employers when their workers have accidents.

Cracking down on hand-held devices isn't a total fix, though. The distracting part of a phone call is the conversation itself, not the device in use, many studies suggest - as when your steady announces out of the blue, "This just isn't working out," stealing your attention from an SUV veering in on the right. Still, as the driver's ed teachers put it, two hands on the wheel, "at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock," are safest, not one somewhere on the wheel and one holding a phone to the ear (or putting on makeup, or turning the pages of a newspaper propped on the wheel, or pounding on a BlackBerry, or petting the dog, all of which also are offenses under D.C.'s Distracted Driving Safety Act).

Critics of the law say drivers should decide for themselves whether they safely can talk (or pet) and drive at the same time. Maybe - if they were endangering only themselves. But that just isn't so, as demonstrated by the fatal 2002 Capital Beltway crash of a woman talking by hand-held phone. She lost control of her brand-new Ford Explorer and smashed into a minivan, killing five people in the two vehicles.

This is one of those times that the government has to legislate common sense.

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