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New York Drivers Become Less Chatty

Law banning hand-held cellphones has cut their use. But whether roads are safer is uncertain.

June 14, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It was a small skirmish in New York state's battle to stop motorists from using hand-held cellphones while driving.

Eliezar Chassine, a 48-year-old psychotherapist, received a ticket in April for talking on a cellphone while driving south on 11th Avenue in Manhattan. He decided to fight, saying he had been using a hands-free speakerphone, which is permitted, along with headsets.

Chassine won his case this week when the officer couldn't remember the alleged infraction.

"I don't have any information about the vehicle," the policeman told Administrative Law Judge Susan Kornhauser as he stood with Chassine in a small hearing room in Lower Manhattan.

"We're going to dismiss," the judge announced.

Chassine's ticket was one of more than 122,000 that have been issued since New York's law -- the only statewide ban in the nation -- took effect in late 2001. California and dozens of other states are considering similar statutes.

Data showing whether accidents have diminished under the ban won't be available until 2005, but officials say it already has curtailed the use of hand-held phones by drivers. Spot surveys by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have shown that the number of drivers seen talking on hand-held phones has been reduced by 50%.

"Our indications are that the law is working well," said Joe Picchi, chief spokesman for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Anything that stops drivers from being distracted is a good thing," added Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation.

But cellphone industry representatives say other distractions pose a greater safety risk than driving while talking on a hand-held device.

"There have been several studies, Virginia being the most recent, of distracted-driving accidents," said Kimberly Kuo, a representative of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn. "Cellphones rank between fifth and eighth on the list of distractions.

"Our position is [driver] education is the answer, because hands-free type of legislation or any type of legislation is sort of a quick fix that does disservice to the ongoing issue of distracted driving."

The survey by Virginia Commonwealth University examined more than 2,700 crash scenes. It concluded that cellphone use ranked sixth in a list of 14 distraction factors. Looking at accidents or traffic, driver fatigue, looking at scenery, passenger or child distractions and adjusting a radio or a CD player were the top five causes.

"A lot of people see drivers using cellphones and automatically assume they certainly must be causing crashes -- especially if [they are] frustrated by something the cellphone person is doing," said Robert J. Breitenbach, director of the university's transportation safety training center. "But other factors rank far ahead of cellphones in contributing to inattentive crashes."

The outlook for California's proposed cellphone law -- which would impose a fine of $20 for a first violation and up to $50 for repeat offenders -- is uncertain. It passed the Assembly by a 41-26 vote, and it was sent Wednesday to the Senate Transportation Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing.

Lobbying in the Assembly was intense, with supporters including the Automobile Club of Southern California. A number of cellphone companies opposed the measure, with a notable exception. Verizon Wireless endorsed the bill, as it did New York's ban.

In New York, where fines for cellphone violations can be as much as $100, stores have reported increased sales of hands-free accessories.

"Since the law, that part of my business has jumped from five to 10 custom-designed, hands-free installations a month to 15 or easily 30," said Jeffrey Jankelovits, president of Mobile Audio Specialists in Manhattan. "These installations begin at $400 and can go to $600 or $700. All of our systems are custom-mounted and will mute the stereo and answer the phone by the third ring."

He said headsets and earpieces might also distract drivers.

"God gave you two ears for a reason. When you are driving and you see someone with something sticking to their head or in their ear, they don't drive as well," Jankelovits said. "They can't be as alert."

New York's ban has spawned a culture of evasion. Motorists who requested anonymity -- some citing embarrassment for being scofflaws -- confessed they have developed surreptitious ways to conceal a phone.

One pharmacist said his phone is so tiny that it's easily covered by the palm of his hand, which he merely rests against an ear. A nurse said she drops her phone onto the front seat when she sees a police car, having earlier discarded her hands-free device after it made an annoying hissing sound.

Being cited for a cellphone violation carries a lesser penalty than those imposed for speeding, turning illegally, running a red light or ignoring a stop sign, which can result in suspension or revocation of a license.

The cellphone citations "are like parking tickets. You do not get a point on your license," lawyer Matthew Greenberg said, referring to the marks against a person's driving record accrued through infractions.

Greenberg, who has successfully defended cellphone cases, said some insurance companies are beginning to consider such convictions when setting rates for drivers.

Under New York's law, officers writing citations must ask whether the illegal cellphone call was an emergency.

"Police have to testify they asked the circumstances," Greenberg said.

*

Times staff writer Carl Ingram in Sacramento and researcher Lynette Ferdinand in New York contributed to this report.

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