The New York Times
October 1, 2005
Note to Drivers: Lose the Phone (and Lipstick)
By DAMIEN CAVE
GREENWICH, Conn., Sept. 29 - When a new state driving law goes into effect here on Saturday, Will Suarez will have to put down his Treo 650 cellphone and stop digging into his briefcase while cruising Connecticut's streets and highways in his Audi sedan.
The new law, one of the toughest in the nation, goes beyond just prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cellphones while behind the wheel. Those pulled over for speeding or other moving violations can be fined $100 for any behavior that distracts them from driving - glancing at a newspaper, typing on a BlackBerry, applying lipstick while looking in the rearview mirror or turning to yell at the kids in the back seat.
It is a prospect that Mr. Suarez, 42, like many drivers across Connecticut, can hardly believe is possible.
"I'm in sales, so I work out of my car a lot," he said Thursday, after driving into a parking lot here with his phone pressed against his ear. "It's an infringement of my personal freedoms."
Drivers nonetheless will have to get used to it. Four years after New York passed the nation's first cellphone ban, 22 states and Washington have limited cellphone use while driving. And in the last year, many of those states have gone beyond merely regulating cellphone use among drivers, cracking down on distractions inside cars.
Tennessee and Virginia, going further than most, have passed laws prohibiting the display of pornographic videos in vehicles. In Nevada, lawmakers recently increased penalties for drivers who kill someone while eating, putting on makeup or using a cellphone. In Washington, district lawmakers have banned driving while "reading, writing, performing personal grooming, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo" or while playing video games. At least a half-dozen other states, including Alaska, Louisiana, Delaware and Wisconsin, are considering bans on activities that pull drivers' attention away from the road.
"This is a trend that we're seeing in a lot of places," said Matt Sundeen, a transportation specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Since the introduction of the cellphone in cars, there has been enormous growing interest in distractions and now they are looking at all aspects of the issue."
Studies have shown for years that holding a cellphone to your ear while maneuvering a vehicle can be dangerous. One 2002 Harvard study estimated that drivers using cellphones may cause about 2,600 deaths a year nationwide and 330,000 injuries.
Hand-held cellphones are not the only problem either. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that distractions are a factor in up to 80 percent of all traffic accidents reported to the police. Even the use of a headset or other hands-free cellphone device can reduce a driver's concentration enough to pose a hazard, the agency found.
"It's the cognitive distraction of the conversation that causes problems," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the traffic safety agency.
Banning the use of hand-held cellphones will nonetheless make highways safer by reminding drivers to pay better attention, said Connecticut State Representative Richard Roy, Democrat of Milford, who had been pushing for a law against driving distractions since 1998.
"There's nothing worse than seeing someone driving down the road, on the phone or shaving or putting on make-up, and there's a child in the back seat," he said. "They'll say over and over that they love that child but they're putting the child in danger."
Mr. Roy said the law included a provision that allows the police to record which distractions are occurring most often. The Connecticut law includes a ban on cellphone use, even with a hands-free device, for drivers with a learning permit. Mr. Sundeen said that 10 states had recently passed laws limiting the use of electronics by teenage drivers.
In addition to Connecticut, only New York, New Jersey and a few cities, including Washington and Chicago, have outright bans on the use of hand-held cellphones by drivers.
In New York, the police can pull over and ticket a motorist just for using a hand-held cellphone.
In New Jersey, drivers spotted using a hand-held phone can be ticketed only if they are pulled over for a moving violation. But on Wednesday, the state's acting governor, Richard J. Codey, called for a law allowing the police to cite motorists solely for talking on a hand-held phone.
"Strengthening the ban will help us live better with technology," Mr. Codey said.
Connecticut's law follows the trend: drivers can be fined $100 simply for holding a cellphone "in the immediate proximity" of their ear. To be ticketed for other distractions, a motorist must first be pulled over for a moving violation.
Not that all drivers here are comforted by the distinction. Throughout Connecticut on Thursday, motorists said they supported outlawing hand-held cellphones, but had reservations about the law's language banning "any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of such vehicle."
Mr. Suarez in Greenwich, who said that he also opposed mandatory seat-belt laws, called the new prohibition "way over the top."
Nancy Neumann, 40, who was shopping on Thursday for a hands-free device at a Verizon store in Trumbull, said the police should not have the right to penalize drivers for eating, drinking or talking to people in the back seat.
"You can grab a soda without even looking and you can swat your kids in the backseat without even looking," said Ms. Neumann, a mother of three.
Kelli Bussan, 36, a stay-at-home mom in New Canaan, said some distractions were impossible to avoid.
"My kids are always dropping their cups," she said, while rearranging toys in her parked gold 2004 Lincoln Navigator. "I have to turn around and get it unless I want them screaming the whole way home."
And what about, some people asked, more personal vehicular occurrences, like kissing or drumming on the dashboard to Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." Leigh Owen, standing near a Starbucks in Greenwich, said she wondered how the police would handle her own recent embarrassing car crisis: a giant spider camped out just above her head.
"I was screaming 'Oh my God, Oh my God, I'm going to die,' " she said. "I had to jerk the wheel to pull over. Would I get a ticket for a spider?"
Mr. Roy, the representative, said the police will have a lot of discretion in enforcing the law. Several officers in Bridgeport emphasized on Thursday that the law will not be used as an excuse for intrusion.
Kim Nikola, 39, an officer with the Bridgeport police, said that the no-cellphone law will be "just one more thing to keep in our minds."
And for some drivers, the law's extension beyond just talking was a welcome reminder that sharing the road requires concentration. Efrain Rosario, 22, an account manager for a Verizon Wireless store in Trumbull, said that on Aug. 10 he drove his 2005 Scion tC into the back of a Honda while reading a text message from a friend. If the law had been in place, he said, maybe he would have thought twice about looking down to read "What's up?"
"That 25-cent text message cost me a thousand dollars in damage," Rosario said, "and it ruined my night."