June 30, 2008

Washington State Says No Cellphones While Driving

Washington state became the most recent to enact a new law requiring drivers to stay off of their hand-held cell phones while driving.

The law, which carries a potential $124 ticket, will begin enforcement on Tuesday. Drivers in the state will be required to hang up their cell phones or use hands-free headsets while driving.

"We'll continue to see more legislation as more devices go in a car," said Matt Sundeen, who has monitored cell phone laws for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "A lot of people agree these types of devices are distracting, but the real question is - are they so distracting they need some type of restriction?"

Traffic-safety advocates say prompt change on the part of drivers is still unlikely in light of the new law.

"Laws like Washington's probably will have a big effect on making people feel good about passing a law but zero effect on highway safety," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The law's impact may primarily be seen in the business sector, where the market could see a surge in purchases of headsets and other hands-free devices.

In an investors report issued last week, analysts at Morgan Keegan said they expect a revenue increase of at least $12 million in sales from California and Washington from June into August for Plantronics Inc., a California-based headset manufacturer.

In a study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, researchers found that drivers are four times more likely to be in an accident when chatting on their cell phone. However, the study also acknowledged that limiting cell phone usage to hands-free devices doesn't have much of an effect.

It's the talking that distracts people, traffic-safety advocates say.

"If you continue to allow hands-free phoning, you haven't addressed the safety problem," Rader said.

California and Washington are the most recent states to enact laws to stop commuters from using cell phones while driving. Both states allow the use of hands-free devices.

Twenty-two state legislatures have considered similar laws over the past year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New York became the first state to pass such a law in 2002. More than 81,000 tickets were issued within the first year. By 2007, the number of tickets jumped to more than 312,000, according to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles.

In 2007, there were more than 141,000 collisions in Washington state, and reports on 158 of them listed "operating" a hand-held device - such as a cell phone or an MP3 player - as a contributing factor, according to the state patrol.

"What we're trying to get across is that when you're driving, you need to be driving," said patrol Sgt. Freddy Williams. "It's going to help keeping both hands on the wheel, but you need to focus on driving, especially at freeway speeds."

A similar law seemed to have the opposite effect in North Carolina, where cell phone use increased after the law took effect, according to the insurance institute report. Teen drivers didn't think the law was being enforced.

Washington residents seem to have mixed reaction to the new law, while most seem to agree that chatting while driving is a dangerous mix.

"I've been in close calls ... because I was not paying attention," said Tony Championsmith, 55, who bought a headset after his latest close call. "Luckily, the other drivers were paying attention."

But 76-year-old Barry Jackson was disappointed that the new law allows headsets. He said conversation is the distracting factor and that letting people continue talking doesn't help.

"Why have the law then?" Jackson said.


On the Net:

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety