Driving while texting and talking still a problem, despite laws

Drivers know that using handheld cell phones and texting while driving is dangerous, but many still do it. Maryland, D.C. and Virginia all ban texting behind the wheel. Drivers caught face fines, but is that enough of a deterrent?

Studies show texting and driving are akin to drinking and driving.  However, the penalties for using a handheld cell phone and texting pale in comparison to DUI, even though distracted driving is just as deadly.

"It's probably not a good idea, but someone will send me a quick message ‘where are you' and I'll respond back but I won't have conversations doing it, just quick here and there," said Justin Perry.

Drivers like Perry may think that's harmless, but those few seconds are all it takes. The average text takes your eyes off of the road for five seconds. At 55 miles per hour that's enough time to drive the length of a football field.  It's enough time to cause an accident.

"It's not only a dangerous behavior, but it's as dangerous perhaps as drugged driving or drunk driving," said John Townsend with AAA Mid-Atlantic.

In Maryland, tickets tripled to 15,000 the first six months after the state made it easier for police to ticket cell phone violators.  Fines for violating the texting and cell phone laws range from $75 to $175.  

In 2013, the first six months of Virginia's texting ban, the state tallied 725 convictions. The fine is $125 for the first offense, and $250 for subsequent offenses. Handheld cell phones are still allowed, but a Prince William lawmaker is fighting to get those banned too.  Despite the fines, more than 3,000 people are killed every year by distracted drivers.

"I saw a pedestrian walking in the crosswalk doing everything right-- it was daylight and she was clipped by a car hard and the young lady was on the phone and did not even notice until someone yelled at her," a Chevy Chase resident told FOX 5.

D.C., the first in the region to ban handheld cell phones in 2009, saw a spike in tickets peaking at 14,580.  Since 2010, it's declined by nearly half. It's unclear if that's because fewer people are violating the ban, less enforcement or drivers are better at hiding it.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson has legislation proposed that would stiffen the penalties for repeat offenders. Right now, the fine is only $100 and on a first offense can be waived if you purchase a hands free device.  Mendelson's proposal would no longer waive the fine.  Drivers caught three times within 18 months would be fined $400 and their driver's license and car registration temporarily suspended.

"What you will have to have will be tougher laws, tougher enforcement and tougher penalties," said Townsend.

In Maryland, distracted drivers involved in an accident could face prison time.  Last year, lawmakers passed what's called Jake's Law, for a boy killed by a driver using a handheld cell phone. Drivers who are using a handheld cell phone or texting while driving can be charged with a felony, facing up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine if someone is injured or killed in an accident.

Those under the age of 20 are the biggest offenders, but they're not alone.

"I see it all age groups. Men, women, everybody. They're just on their phones in the car. Nothing can be that important," said a D.C. man.

Stopping distracted driving, some say, will take time and education too. For instance with drunk driving, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, were instrumental in raising awareness and lobbying for tougher laws, but it still took decades for the number of drunk driving fatalities to drop by half.

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