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Is Maryland's cellphone driving ban working?

Like a lot of states, Maryland has a ban on handheld cellphone use while driving as a means to cut down on the number of cellphone-related car accidents. Enacted in October 2010, the law isn't quite as stiff as neighboring Delaware's. (For example, a Delaware motorist can be pulled over for that offense alone. In Maryland it can only be enforced if a driver is pulled over for another offense.) The penalties are also slightly lower in Maryland.

The National Transportation Safety Board now recommends a ban on all cellphone use, even hands-free, along with other electronic devices. Studies show that distracted driving happens in the brain, not just the hands. Even with the use of a headset, drivers need to look at the phone to dial, may take their hands off the wheel while gesturing, and can easily become engaged in the conversation to the point that they stop paying attention to cars or pedestrians around them.

Some of these studies used driving simulators, in-vehicle data collection equipment and cellphone records of drivers involved in accidents. The findings are astonishing:

-Using a cellphone while driving can quadruple your risk of crashing.

-Cellphone use significantly impairs a driver's reaction time.

-Dialing a phone nearly triples the risk of a crash or a close call, and talking increases the risk by roughly 30 percent.

But is Maryland's handheld cellphone ban strict enough to be effective? It's hard to say how often the $40 fine for a first offense ($100 for a repeat offense) actually prevents drivers from using a handheld cellphone, or whether the absence of that use actively prevents car accidents. But the studies suggest that an even stricter ban on cellphone use by drivers wouldn't do any harm on the road.

Source: DelmarvaNow.com, "Jury still out on state bans," Dec. 29, 2011

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