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Calls for Ban on Cell Phone Use in Cars Debated

September 27, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT

Have you ever spotted someone driving so recklessly while chatting on a cellular phone that you wanted to pull your vehicle over and duck for cover?

I recently observed a young woman in my rearview mirror zigzagging in and out of lanes, talking on the phone and applying styling gel to her hair. She passed me and nearly rear-ended a vehicle while deep in conversation and checking her hairdo in the mirror.

No wonder there's a backlash against the growing number of cell phone users on the road.

There has been such a public outcry over the dangers posed by irresponsible car cell phone users that California Assemblywoman Audie Bock (I-Piedmont) organized a panel of experts and citizens in Oakland last week to discuss whether legislation is needed to address such misuse.

"We all know from our own anecdotal evidence . . . using a cell phone when driving can be extremely hazardous," Bock said.

About 40% of the nation's drivers have a phone in their car or truck, according to a recent survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Like many of that 40% who have come to rely on cellular phones for keeping in touch with family and work--and staying connected when they need roadside help--Bock wants to keep our roads safe. But she is reluctant to lose her own phone privileges.

"I don't want to legislate against myself," Bock said. "I use my cell phone in my car because I commute back and forth 1 1/2 hours a day from Sacramento to Oakland. As a single parent, I don't want to leave my teenager home alone."

That said, she also acknowledges that she has used her phone while driving and "from my own experience, I frequently pass my freeway exit."

*

The telecommunications industry generally opposes restrictions on cellular usage in the car, suggesting that educating drivers on safety would do more good.

One exception is Verizon Communications, the largest U.S. cell phone provider, which on Monday agreed to support laws that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Spokeswoman Annette Jacobs told Reuters that the company would support repeal of an Illinois law governing earphones and then lobby for a statewide ban on anything but hands-free cell phone use by drivers.

Here in California, Bock's hearing drew representatives from both sides of the debate, including accident safety experts, law enforcement officials, physicians and members of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a group that opposes cell phone restrictions as an infringement on personal freedom.

Among those testifying was Frances Bents of Dynamic Science, a Maryland company that conducts health and safety research.

"There are no good crash statistics and there may never be," she told Highway 1, "because when a cell phone user is responsible for a crash, the first thing he or she will do is to stick that phone in their pocket and not admit to being on the phone."

"It's difficult to study, and police are at a great disadvantage" to determine whether cell phone usage is a factor in accidents, Bents said.

Bents, a former accident analyst at NHTSA and coauthor of a 1997 U.S. study on cell phone use and accidents, said the greatest concern is that talking on the phone impairs the driver's cognitive ability.

Even with headsets and other so-called hands-free options, she said, people become "engrossed in that conversation to the point where we become oblivious to what is going on around us. Here you are driving a 3,000-pound rocket and you are in charge--and you're not even there."

Mardy Burns, who traveled from Independence, Mo., testified about the loss of her daughter, Sara, 18, in a car crash four years ago. The young woman was killed when the driver of the vehicle in which she was riding reached down to pick up his cellular phone, lost control and plowed into a bridge.

Burns made an emotional plea for states to act.

"I don't want to see a cell phone be banned completely from a car. I want to see people use them properly," she told Highway 1.

Injuries and deaths will continue, Burns said, "until you get some legislation behind it."

*

Thirty-seven states have introduced legislation aimed at curbing cell phone usage in vehicles, Assemblywoman Bock said, but thus far none of the measures has passed. Most of the proposals never even made it out of committee, including one three years ago in California, she said.

The small Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn, Ohio, claims the distinction of being the first municipality in the country to make it a traffic violation to use a cell phone while driving, except in an emergency.

Earlier this year, Santa Monica debated restrictions on cell phone usage, but the City Council ultimately voted down the proposed $250 fine for anyone caught driving and calling within city limits.

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