GREENWICH, CONN. – A new Connecticut State law, one of the toughest in the nation, goes beyond just prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cell phones 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.
Drivers will have to get used to it. Four years after New York passed the nation's first cell phone ban, 22 states and Washington, D.C., have limited cell phone-use while driving. In the past year, many of those states have gone beyond merely regulating cell phone-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 cell phone. 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 cell phones 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 cell phone to your ear while maneuvering a vehicle can be dangerous. One 2002 Harvard study estimated that drivers using cell phones may cause about 2,600 deaths a year nationwide and 330,000 injuries.
Hand-held cell phones are not the only problem either. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that distractions are a factor in up to 80% of all traffic accidents reported to the police. Even the use of a headset or other hands-free cell phone 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 NHTSA spokesperson.
Banning the use of hand-held cell phones will nonetheless make highways safer by reminding drivers to pay better attention, said Connecticut State Representative Richard Roy, (D-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."
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 cell phone-use, even with a hands-free device, for drivers with a learning permit. 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, D.C., and Chicago, have outright bans on the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers. In New York, the police can pull over and ticket a motorist just for using a hand-held cell phone.
In New Jersey, drivers spotted using a hand-held phone can be ticketed only if they are pulled over for a moving violation. But recently, the state's acting governor, Richard 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," Codey said.
Connecticut's law follows the trend: drivers can be fined $100 simply for holding a cell phone "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, motorists said they supported outlawing hand-held cell phones, 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."
The police will have a lot of discretion in enforcing the law. Several officers in Bridgeport, Conn., emphasized 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-cell phone law will be "just one more thing to keep in our minds."