Despite Lack of Data, Politicos Want More Texting While Driving Restrictions

Existing Texting Ban is Difficult to Enforce Say Some Police Officers

By BEN GILES, Maryland Newsline/Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK (March 05, 2010) - State Sen. Mike Lenett, D-Montgomery, once took his two sons, David and Aaron, to a Baltimore Orioles game. As Lenett and the boys crossed a street on their way from the stadium to a downtown-parking garage, he spotted a woman driving her car and using her cellular phone --- she was headed straight for David.

The woman sped toward the boy, lost in her phone. At the last possible moment, Lenett grabbed his son and pulled him out of the car's path. He watched as the woman drove away, oblivious to the accident that almost was.

It was 1996—more than a decade before Lenett was elected to the Maryland Senate—but he says the moment stuck with him. It's one of many stories being told during hearings in support of a handful of bills moving through the General Assembly addressing cell phone issues, most of which focus on texting and driving.

But support of new legislation lacks a key element: specific statistics.

Maryland State Police officials say there are no records showing exactly how often texting while driving causes car accidents in Maryland. Only general figures and factors on automobile accidents are available.

Local and State Police departments also keep no records of enforcement of the Maryland ban on writing and sending text messages while driving, which went into effect in October. Tom Williams, State Police liaison to the General Assembly, said that departments typically don't keep track of specific traffic infractions.

"We're never going to have good statistics on how well these laws work," Lenett said. "But we know for certain that this is a frequent offense."

Until such records are available, there's no telling what effect the laws are having on drivers.

What is known is that nearly 6,000 people were killed in accidents caused by distracted drivers in the United States in 2008, according to National Highway Traffic Safety data. Another 515,000 were injured.

In Maryland, there were 35 fatalities and 11,636 injuries caused by distracted drivers in 2008, according the Maryland State Highway Administration.

The Maryland texting ban, passed during the 2009 General Assembly, was the first of its kind in the state. It prohibits writing and sending text messages while driving, but allows drivers to read text messages they receive.

Maryland is now one of 19 states that have passed some form of a texting ban, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Administration.

A study conducted at the University of Utah Applied Cognition Laboratory found that a driver's reaction to traffic while texting is comparable to a drunk driver's. For 98 percent of the population, the likelihood of a crash increases fourfold while texting.

Studies such as this, coupled with stories of deaths caused by distracted drivers, make an emotional case for legislation completely banning texting while driving.

The Maryland bill that passed in 2009 was stripped down in the House of Delegates to only ban sending messages. It was originally a more comprehensive ban that would have prohibited all forms of texting.

According to John Townsend III, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, removing the full ban from the bill was a mistake.

"The landscape is changing so quickly," Townsend said. "I think that the legislation has yet to keep up with where people are."

House Bill 192, co-sponsored this year by Delegate James Malone Jr., D-Baltimore County, and Delegate Wade Kach, R-Baltimore County, would close the loophole in the law. Speaking in support of the bill, AAA argued that the bill is a strong clarification of the current law.

Texting while driving, AAA wrote, "has become one of the most common, visible and dangerous forms of districted driving behavior."

Yet AAA added, "There is no specific data on how many messages are typed or read by drivers, or how often the activity leads to collisions."

Elena Russo, Maryland State Police director of communications, said the State Police don't keep either record. Accident reports show only scattered and inconsistent notes that could point to texting as the cause of an accident.

If an officer is able to discern that texting was a factor, it is listed in the contributing circumstances category, she said.

Officials with police departments in Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties also said they do not keep track of the number of texting violations. A spokesman for Prince George's said his department has no plans to start keeping track.

While local police officials would not speculate as to why no statistics are kept, Kach said he's heard firsthand from police officers just how difficult the texting ban is to enforce. It's easy for a driver to either hide his phone or lie about whether or not he was texting or reading a message.

Lenett is also skeptical of how well supporting data can be collected.

But Lenett, who's co-sponsoring a bill in the Senate to prohibit all uses of a cell phone while driving, said a lack of data is not enough of a reason to dismiss a law. He and Kach say it's common sense that texting is a dangerous problem, and that a law should be passed to enforce safer driving habits.

A great majority of the public will obey the law if it's passed, Lenett said, regardless of whether they think it's fair.

At least one study suggests that drivers may not be obeying new traffic laws.

A new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute examining insurance claims in New York, Connecticut, California and the District of Columbia found that accident rates were unaffected by the passage of texting bans.

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