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Residents skeptical about ban on cell phone use while driving

September 29, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • A ban on cell phone use while driving that goes into effect Friday in Maryland.
Photo illustration by Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

Local residents are skeptical about whether a ban on cell phone use while driving that goes into effect Friday in Maryland will convince anyone to hang up the phone or switch to a hands-free device.

"People are going to get out what they have to say," said Brandy Baker, 19, of Hagerstown, who said she talks on her phone just about every time she drives. "It's just like speeding. You can get pulled over for speeding, but people still do it."

The state law that takes effect Friday prohibits drivers from using a handheld phone while the vehicle is in motion, other than to initiate or end a wireless call, to turn the phone on or off, or to call for emergency services. Hands-free devices, such as Bluetooth headsets, are allowed.

The violation is enforceable only as a secondary offense, meaning that a driver can only be cited if pulled over for another offense, such as speeding.

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Drivers can be fined up to $40 for an initial violation and $100 for subsequent violations.

State officials say the law is aimed at reducing the number of crashes, deaths and serious injuries caused by distracted driving. The National Safety Council estimates cell phone use is the cause of about 28 percent of crashes in the U.S., or about 1.6 million crashes a year.

Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said Wednesday that for the first month or so, deputies probably will give warnings instead of citations for cell phone use.

"That's only for a short time to give them a little leeway to make sure they have their hands-free devices," Mullendore said.

Mullendore said the ban would be easier to enforce than the texting-while-driving ban enacted in 2009 because cell phones are held near the face, not in the lap, for conversations.

If a citation is questioned, call records will make it easy to prove whether someone is using a cell phone, he said. However, demonstrating the call was made with the hand-held phone and not a hands-free device may be more difficult.

"If they have a hands-free device with them, you'll never know if it was activated at the time or not," Mullendore said.

While officers can't pull someone over for cell phone use alone, finding another violation to justify the stop is not difficult, local law enforcement officials said.

"The other violation could be almost anything," said 1st Sgt. Kevin Lewis of the Maryland State Police Hagerstown Barrack, listing seatbelt violations, weaving across the center line and illegal window tinting as a few examples.

"If I really wanted to stop you for something, it would be very easy to do," Mullendore agreed. "Everybody commits a violation at some point. Either they don't use a turn signal when they're making a turn, or they don't make a stop before they make the right hand turn. There are just so many things they could be stopped for."

At least one Hagerstown resident said he thinks use of a cell phone while driving should be enough reason to pull someone over.

"Why have a law if you can only use it if you can find something wrong at the same time?" said Tom James, 54, of Hagerstown.

James also criticized a provision in the law that exempts law enforcement and emergency personnel, if they are using the phone within the scope of official duty.

Mullendore said despite the exemption, the Sheriff's Department is instituting its own policy requiring deputies to use hands-free devices if they talk on the phone.

Some local residents said the ban will not affect them because they already use a hands-free device or they rarely talk on the phone while driving.

"I don't anyhow; I just think it's dangerous," said Eugene Angle, 87 of Hagerstown. "You can't concentrate on two things, driving and talking."

"I've seen so many people (who) don't watch where they're going or anything," agreed Vivian Miller, 42, of Hagerstown, who uses a hands-free earpiece with her TracFone.

With the ban, more people may be joining her. Robert Fugate, an employee at the Longmeadow Shopping Center Radio Shack store, said while employees have been "constantly" talking to customers about hands-free sets, the store sold more Wednesday than usual. By about 4 p.m. Wednesday, he estimated the store had sold four or five, which he said was a lot for the smaller-volume store.

Hands-free sets range from about $30 to $130, Fugate said. Some clip to the car's visor, but most have to be connected to the user's ear, he said.

So what should you do if you need to make a call while driving and you don't have a hands-free device? One thing Lewis advises against doing is pulling off to the shoulder of an interstate highway to make or take a call.

"You're sitting on the shoulder, maybe a foot or two away from a steady stream of vehicles -- cars, trucks and tractor trailers -- that are doing 60, 65, 70 mph," Lewis said. "One little slip from someone ... they drift off to the shoulder and -- bang! -- they hit you when you're stopped on the shoulder."

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