Hands free is the law

Drivers in Delaware are no longer allowed to be hold a cellphone to their ear while driving.

The First State is the eighth to institute a ban on handheld cellphones behind the wheel.  The state’s ban includes a ban on writing, reading or sending text messages while driving.  Delaware is the 30th state with a texting while driving ban.  

Governor Jack Markell signed the ban into law in July at the headquarters of AAA Mid-Atlantic in July.  AAA’s Jim Lardear says the car club is advocating for all state’s to ban handheld cellphones for drivers.  “But AAA would want people to know even though you’re on a cellphone on a hands free device, it still provides the opportunity for distraction, because the conversation is taking place somewhere outside of the vehicle.”

State Police are hoping for improved safety on the roads as a result of the law.  Cpl. Jeffrey Hale say, “The reason for this is that we’ve seen an increase in the number of accidents causing injury and death with people being distracted by cellphone use.”  He says the law enables troopers to be proactive in making Delaware’s roads safer, rather than just responding to incidents as they occur.  “Anytime he makes his stop where the driver is distracted, he’s potentially stopping an accident from occurring, so it just helps us out on our job in helping keep the highways safe.”

The city of Wilmington enacted its own cellphone ban for drivers at the beginning of the year.  City Police Chief Michael Szczerba says, “It think it’s been a postive step forward for safety for all drivers here in the city of Wilmington.”  He says officers have handed out about 100 citations per month in 2010, “But that doesn’t give you the true picture of the number of stops we make because it’s at the discretion of the officers.  Sometimes, it does result in a warning.”  

Cpl. Hale says while State Troopers also have discretion in handing out tickets, troopers will be strictly enforcing the cellphone ban.  “People have had plenty of notice.  The law was signed back in July.  There’s been numerous ads, billboards, electronic billboards on the highway that beginning January second the law would go into effect, and on January second, we will be enforcing that law.”  

The fine for the first violation of the law will be a $50 fine.  Subsequent offenses will result in a $100 to $200 fine.  The violations will not result in points against a driver’s license.

The biggest impact of the ban may be it’s ability to force parents to set a good example for their kids behind the wheel.  Chief Szczerba says, “You have Generation X leading the way, and now you have “generation-text”, who are quite adept at always texting and talking on that cellphone and realize that it’s the law, it’s the law for safety and it’s for the good of all the community.”  Lardear says, “The teenage drivers have the highest risk because they’re the newest ones behind the wheel… They’re the ones that are more easily distracted because they don’t have the experience behind the wheel.”

Just like the state’s seat belt laws, compliance with the new cellphone ban may take some time.  “Most drivers think they’re good drivers, and they’re not concerned about themselves on a handheld device.  They think it’s the other drivers that have the problem that are dangerous,” says Lardear.  “So, it’s the education.  The penalties, I don’t think are really what drives a behavior change.”  Hale says hopefully it will soon be second nature for drivers to use a hands free device.  “Hopefully, we won’t have to give out a lot of tickets.”  He says, “Some people will fight the law.  Some people just won’t want to do it, and that’s with any case. But hopefully with a few tickets given out, people will say, ‘Hey, police aren’t messing around with this.  This is serious.  Let me get a hands free device.'” 

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