The Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004 brought DC into line with best practices of other states in banning the use of handheld devices by drivers. But the penalty for that doesn't single out repeat offenders, and is easy to avoid for first time offenders. Under that law, the penalty is $100, but first-time violators can have the fine suspended by providing proof of having acquired a hands-free accessory prior to the imposition of the fine, and there are no points imposed on violators.
DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced a bill this session, the Enhanced Penalties for Distracted Driving Amendment Act of 2015, to strengthen those penalties. It would increase the fines for those who are found to have repeatedly engaged in distracted driving, culminating in a driver’s license suspension for those who have three violations within eighteen months. The bill was co-introduced by Bonds, Allen, and Nadeau and referred to the Committee of Transportation and the Environment chaired by Mary Cheh.
Under the proposed law, the first violation will still be $100 but buying a hands-free accessory with not suspend the fine. Furthermore, under the new law fines will escalate over an 18 month period. The 2nd violation in that time period would result in a $200 fine, and subsequent violations will result in a $400 fine plus the suspension of the driver's license and the cars registration for 60 to 180 days. In addition, starting with the 2nd violation, points may be assessed even for violations that do not result in a crash.
It's a good change to the law. Allowing people to buy hands-free accessories may have made sense in 2004 when such laws were new, but they're now commonplace and people should know better. Targeting repeat offenders, and suspending the licenses of the worst among them, should help to make our roads safer.
I'd like to see DC go further and become the first jurisdiction* to explicitly make driving while talking on the phone - hands-free or otherwise - illegal. The law already states that "Distracted driving shall be prohibited" and defines Distracted Driving as "inattentive driving while operating a motor vehicle that results in the unsafe operation of the vehicle where such inattention is caused by reading, writing, performing personal grooming, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, using personal communications technologies, or engaging in any other activity which causes distractions." But it would be wise, based on our current understanding of how talking on the phone detracts from ones ability to drive safely, to explicitly ban phone use by drivers as we do with school bus drivers and those with learner's permits.
Alternatively, we could nibble around the edges by extending the restriction on phone use to those under 21 years old (as New Jersey does), or in school zones, construction sites and within 500 feet of a crash site as Illinois does. Or break new ground by baring drivers of large trucks from using their phones.
And yes, same goes for cyclists.