Cars May Be Turning Into Computers but Police Warn the Law is the Law

Speeds may improve for commuters but state highway and public safety officials say texting and driving continues to be a problem in Maryland.

Attention commuters: AT&T wants you to know that when you’re on certain highways in Maryland, you can expect faster speeds on your mobile devices.

Attention commuters excited by that first announcement: State and local officials warn that there are strict laws on how to use those devices.

AT&T announced this month that it had expanded its broadband wireless capacity and performance of its mobile broadband network along MD-295 and I-95 in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

“Our customers want to stay in touch with both the family and the office at all times,” wrote AT&T spokeswoman Margarita Noriega in a press release. “Commuters can expect better reception and download speeds now.”

There were no disclaimers on the dangers of distracted driving but Maryland state highway officials were happy to provide some.

“Wow. Whether you get something in a second, or you get it in a half a second, it’s still dangerous as far as we’re concerned,” said David Buck, a State Highway Administration spokesman, in response. “One hundred percent of attention should be at task at hand, and that’s driving.”

Maryland State Police spokesperson Greg Shipley agreed.

As companies like this continue to promote their product, we on the traffic safety [side], continue to promote the fact, you have to pay attention to your driving.”

AT&T’s decision to beef up its wireless capacity on and around highways makes “intuitive sense,” Noriega said in an interview. She said that if people are spending more time commuting, it “increases the demand for capacity and coverage for …. making calls, to data downloading and real-time services like checking directions.”

She said the mobile broadband capacity on 295 and 95 would mean commuters would have enhanced 3G coverage under AT&T’s system.

"By the time you are on the highway and you need something right away, it’s probably an emergency," she said. "Part of the strategy is to pinpoint where people need coverage most.”

Noriega said AT&T has a philanthropic campaign designed to educate teens on the dangers of texting and driving. 

She also said the company has launched a driving app, called DriveMode, that, when activated, sends an automatic reply to incoming texts that a driver is unavailable, as well as disabling e-mails, Web browsing and most incoming and outgoing calls.

She said AT&T has been working with Ford on enabling drivers to interact with their phones via technology in their cars.

MyFord Mobile, for electric vehicle owners, would use an app powered by Mapquest to help drivers plan trips and locate charging stations, among other services.

Other companies are also offering more connectivity in cars. Subaru recently added a feature that allows anyone in the car to access the Internet, MSN recently reported. 

“Commuters do need information all the time,” Noriega said. “They tend to be people who are in need of information quicker because they are traveling. … There’s a huge trend in making your car a mobile device in and of itself.”

Drivers must use a handheld device in order to make cell phone calls in Maryland, according to a law that took effect in October of 2010. Texting and driving is also illegal, as is reading texts and e-mails during stops at red lights.

The law does not apply to calling 911 or using a GPS.

State police counted 197 personal injury crashes in 2008 (the most recent year data was available) that occurred in which the driver using a cell phone was listed as a contributing cause, said Shipley.

Beyond personal injury, a total of 438 crashes had cell phones as a contributing cause, he added.

Shipley said he believes those numbers are actually higher because not all Maryland local police departments report data into the state system and it’s “quite likely there are more of those than police officers are able to determine in an investigation.”

Statewide, officers from the 76 police departments in Maryland that report data have said they’ve issued 587 texting and driving warnings and 379 citations since the first texting and driving law took effect in October of 2009, Shipley said.

A total of 4,021 warnings and 5,227 citations have been issued since the cell phone law took effect in October of 2010 by those police departments for failure to use a hands-free cell phone, according to Shipley.

“There are a whole variety of technological devices that people spend their time on now,” he said. “The bottom line is, no matter how many ‘Gs’ are in the network or how fast the communication…when you are driving a motor vehicle, your full time and attention has to be on that activity.”



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