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Transportation Department draws attention to distracted driving

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is attempting to spread the word to drivers across the country that cellphone use remains a top cause of car accidents. There are numerous campaigns addressing the issue in individual states, including Maryland, where 231 people died last year in accidents involving distracted driving.

Some states have harsher laws than others when it comes to distracted driving. California has some of the most stringent laws; it's illegal to text or even talk on a handheld cellphone. Considering the 22 percent drop in road fatalities since the law went into effect two years ago, the California Highway Patrol and other officials believe the cellphone ban is working.

West Virginia is enacting a similar law that will take effect this summer. Starting in July, texting behind the wheel will be a primary offense, meaning police can pull over drivers seen texting for that reason alone. Talking on a handheld cellphone will be a secondary offense and become a primary offense one year later.

In Maryland, all drivers are prohibited from sending or reading texts. Talking on a cellphone is a secondary offense, meaning police must have another reason to pull over a driver before issuing a cellphone citation. But there are at least five distracted-driving bills waiting in the state Legislature, three of which aim to make talking on a handheld cellphone a primary offense. And drivers under 18 with learner's permits or intermediate licenses aren't allowed to use a cellphone at all, except to dial 911 or another emergency service.

There appears to be a growing consensus among law enforcement officials and lawmakers that distracted driving leads to severe, often fatal accidents. Victims of these accidents and their families already understand that no text message or phone conversation behind the wheel is worth a serious or life-threatening crash.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, "April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month," April 3, 2012

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