updated 6/29/2004 6:21:05 PM ET 2004-06-29T22:21:05

Driving through the nation’s capital is about to mean putting down your cell phone.

Under a law taking effect Thursday, drivers will be allowed to hold telephones only to make emergency calls, begin calls or turn their phones on or off. Otherwise, they must use a handsfree device if they want to talk on the phone while at the wheel.

“A lot of accidents are caused by people driving while distracted,” said Chief Charles H. Ramsey of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. Throughout July, officers will issue warnings to drivers found violating the district’s new Distracted Driving Safety Act. In August, they will begin issuing citations that carry fines of up to $100.

A similar law passed in New York in 2001 has resulted in more than 269,000 citations. New Jersey, like the District of Columbia, begins enforcing its own new law July 1.

To be in compliance with the law, motorists must use an ear piece and microphone or some other form of handsfree technology with their cell phones. The simplest devices cost about $15; more elaborate systems can cost hundreds.

School bus drivers and people with learner’s permits may not use cell phones at all while their vehicles are moving.

Councilman Harold Brazil, who spent three years building support for the restrictions, said, “It’s like drunk driving. You see people cutting you off and driving crazy and they’ve got this cell phone up to their head.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says driver distraction contributes to up to 30 percent of all traffic accidents.

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