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When Hands Are on the Phone, Not the Wheel

An increasing number of accidents, some fatal, is spurring debate over whether the government should regulate the way people use cellular phones while driving.


It was a bright, sunny afternoon in November 1999 when Patti Pena gently strapped her daughter Morgan Lee into a car seat and headed home from a visit with her cousin.

Just a few days earlier, Pena had quit her job to stay at home with Morgan Lee, a bubbly, 2 1/2-year-old towhead who loved to sing and smile.

Pena had a happy marriage to her husband, Robert, a beautiful baby girl and a new home. As she cruised on Route 152, a two-lane road in rural Hilltown Township, Pa., about 30 miles north of Philadelphia, Pena couldn't imagine life getting any better.

What happened in the next split second changed Pena's life forever and fueled a national debate on the safety risks of talking on a wireless phone while driving.

Frederick Poust III, a 27-year-old part-time college employee, approached the intersection from a side street as he was dialing a wireless phone, police said. Distracted for a moment, Proust went through a stop sign and broadsided Pena's vehicle, police said.

Morgan Lee died the next day of a head injury.

"We were devastated," said Pena, who does not talk about the accident anymore because of a lawsuit she and her husband have filed against Poust.

But the sorrow turned to anger when the Penas discovered Poust would receive only two traffic citations and a $50 fine for causing the fatal accident. There were no laws, they found out, limiting the use of wireless phones while driving.

Morgan Lee's death seemed to strike a nerve with the American public. Within days of the accident, Pena found herself taking on the wireless-phone industry. Television stations in Philadelphia and news media from across the country called for interviews. "Car Talk," a nationally syndicated radio show, devoted an entire show to the issue. Oprah Winfrey tackled it. Patti and Robert Pena did their best to accommodate everyone, hoping their words would make a difference.

A Web site dedicated to Morgan Lee generated thousands of hits, many from people who had been injured or had lost loved ones in accidents caused by wireless-phone use. Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, a loosely organized lobbying group, was born out of the overwhelming response. At issue is whether the government should regulate the way people use wireless phones while driving. A 1995 survey by Prevention Magazine concluded that 85% of the 50 million wireless-phone subscribers at the time said they talked on the phone while driving. Since then, the number of customers has doubled.

Proponents of limiting wireless-phone use point to a 1997 study by the New England Journal of Medicine that reported a motorist on a phone was four times more likely to be involved in an accident. They also cite a warning from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about using wireless phones or other high-tech devices while driving.

Critics, including many members of the wireless industry, say there are enough laws covering careless or reckless driving. Those laws, they say, should be used to prosecute drivers who cause accidents while using a wireless phone. They claim driving and dialing is no more dangerous than being distracted while eating a hamburger or changing a radio station. Education, not legislation, they say, is the best solution.

Since 1995 at least 37 states have proposed bills that in some way would restrict the use of wireless phones in cars, but only California, Florida and Massachusetts have laws that put minor restrictions on phone use in cars. Some states, including Pennsylvania, require troopers to note in accident reports whether a wireless phone was in use.

Although states have been slow to restrict the use of wireless phones while driving, small towns have taken the lead. As of June, five municipalities across the country have enacted ordinances limiting the use of wireless phones in cars, although hundreds are considering measures. The first was passed in March 1999 in Brooklyn, Ohio.

Hilltown in Pennsylvania followed suit in January, two months after Morgan Lee Pena was killed. A county judge, however, struck down Hilltown's ordinance, ruling it was preempted by the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code. At about the same time, the Allentown, Pa., City Council considered a ban on mobile phone use while driving but backed off before it came to a vote. Last month, the mayor of Jersey City, N.J., vetoed a measure that would have outlawed using wireless phones while driving.

The use of mobile phones while a vehicle is in motion has been banned in countries in Europe, South America and Asia. Driving while talking on a mobile phone was banned in Japan after a study found the number of traffic accidents related to the phones increased by 11% from 1997 to 1998. In the month after the law went into effect, the number of accidents caused by drivers using wireless phones fell by about 75%.

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