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Participate in the Exchange. Send ideas and feedback to: noah@thinkngc.com

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – People driving while using mobile devices are becoming an even greater problem. You don’t need professional studies to tell you that, although there are plenty of them. All you need do is look around while you’re in traffic. Now, it seems, they’re not only jeopardizing our safety, but they’re wasting our time, too.

Pop sensation Rihanna has a hit song called "Shut Up and Drive." The lyrics have nothing do to with the frustrations that many of us share on our daily commutes, but it definitely can be used metaphorically to sum up the problem. Ironically, the tune actually came on the radio the other day while stuck behind this SOB eating fast food and texting at the same time. No kidding.

Cell phones and mobile devices play an integral role in our society. In the United States, more than 254 million people subscribe to wireless communication devices compared to approximately 4.3 million in 1990, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) suggests that using a hands-free device instead of a hand-held phone while behind the wheel will not necessarily improve safety.

New computer simulations show that chatty drivers, using either regular cell phones or hands-free devices, take longer to complete their trips because they drive slower and pass sluggish drivers less frequently. Motorists who use cell phones while driving also are four times as likely to get into crashes, according to the IIHS.

There are two dangers associated with driving and cell-phone use, including text messaging. First, drivers must take their eyes off the road while dialing. Second, people can become so absorbed in their conversations that their ability to concentrate is impaired, jeopardizing the safety of vehicle occupants and pedestrians.

‘Eliminate Distractions’

The Innovation Exchange caught up with Darrell Jernigan, N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety program director, to shed better light on the issue in North Carolina. "The best way drivers can avoid traffic crashes is to eliminate distractions while driving," he said. "Cell phone use and driving is not only putting the driver at risk for a serious crash but jeopardizes the safety of other motorists on the road as well."

North Carolina only bans handheld devices while driving for school bus drivers and novice drivers under 18 with primary enforcement, meaning drivers can be pulled over and ticketed without having committed another driving violation, such as speeding. Any person violating this could pay a $25 fine. No drivers license points, insurance surcharge, or court costs are assessed as a result of a violation. Also, this prohibition does not apply when a vehicle is stationary or for communicating emergency situations.

About 15 states have passed laws banning or restricting young drivers from using cell phones. Last May, Washington became the first state to ban the practice of texting with a cell phone while driving; New Jersey passed a similar law that took effect on March 1. Washington State also joins New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Connecticut and California in outlawing the practice of texting on a hand-held cell phone while driving.

Currently, there is no such legislation in the works regarding texting in North Carolina.

In Washington, the fine for DWT (driving while texting) is set at $101, but since it is a secondary offense a driver must be pulled over for some more grievous infraction before the penalty can be imposed. In New Jersey the fine for DWT is $100. In Connecticut drivers can be fined $100 not only for using a cell phone, but those pulled over for speeding or other moving violations can be fined for other driving distractions such as putting on makeup or turning to discipline children in the back seat. In New York, drivers face fines of $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second and $500 thereafter.

Jonathan Adkins is communications director with the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, the national voice on highway safety representing state and territorial highway safety offices in Washington D.C. He explained, "From GHSA’s perspective, we would like to stress that no matter what the law, all cell phone use while driving is dangerous. The best message for drivers is to hang up and drive."