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Hands belong on the wheel, not the phone

November 08, 2011

“The Far Side” creator Gary Larson once drew a cartoon of a sweating worker whistling a happy tune in hell. Watching him, one devil says to another, “You know, we’re just not reaching that guy.”

Judging by the number of drivers who can be seen routinely chatting away on cellphones, Maryland’s ban on gabbing behind the wheel is not reaching a lot of motorists.

That’s why we support the proposal to make driving while using a hand-held cellphone a primary offense, meaning an officer need have no other reason for pulling the driver over and writing a ticket.

Currently, a driver who is talking on a hand-held phone can be cited only if he is stopped for some other infraction.

Of course, other infractions are liable to materialize if a driver is using a cellphone, ranging from failure to use a turn signal to an outright wreck. Still, it would be good if police were able to shut this barn door before the horse has left.

By now, the refrain should be familiar. Driving while using a cellphone is statistically as dangerous as drunken driving, and anything that distracts a driver from the highway is bound to have unfortunate consequences.

Nor is this a matter of government interfering in one’s own personal freedom; like driving drunk, cellphone use affects, and endangers, everyone else on the highway.

Maryland law governing the use of phones in cars has come in fits and starts. Until September, for example, it was illegal to write a text, but legal to read one. Now, all forms of text-messaging have been properly banned and a violation is a primary offense.

But talking on a hand-held phone sadly remains a secondary offense.

And, as was originally the case with the seat belt law, lending an infraction “secondary offense” status sets it in the public mind that the issue is not altogether serious.

Seat belt laws generally were not obeyed until police gained the authority to stop a motorist for no other reason than a failure to buckle up.

We believe the same will hold for cell phone use. Targeted enforcement and public awareness campaigns reminiscent of the “click it or ticket” initiative will be needed to take phones out of drivers’ hands, and focus their attention back where it should be — on the road.

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