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Limit Cellphones in Cars or Just Let Freedom Ring?

July 14, 2006|Bob Pool and Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writers

He doesn't own either a cellphone or a car. But Jim Love was taking a proposed restriction on phone use in cars personally Thursday.

"I've been hit twice by women talking on their phones on this very street," the retired computer worker said as he watched traffic pass on busy Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. "The last one knocked me down.... They just kept yakking and kept driving on."

The debate over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's support for a ban on the use of hand-held cellular phones by motorists was the buzz at the Sherman Oaks Starbucks and beyond.

Two camps quickly emerged: those who already use hands-free devices and think it's reckless not to, and regular cellphone users who vigorously defend their behavior as actually being safer than pulling a headset on and off.

Then there were those who thought it was a good idea -- as long as it applied to someone else.

"L.A.'s way too crazy and wild a place to be pulling people over for talking on their phones," said Charles "C.J." Jacobson of Sherman Oaks, a producer of TV commercials. "Maybe there should be a permit system. There's a slew of professionals who need to use cellphones in cars. But soccer moms don't need to be doing it."

While some fear that driving in California would change forever if state lawmakers prohibited drivers' use of hand-held phones, the lessons of other states that have adopted similar rules might offer pause.

New York, with much fanfare, banned hand-held cell use three years ago. Though authorities issued more than 142,000 citations for illegal cellphone use the first year, a state survey found that half of all New York drivers thought it "was not likely at all" that they would be stopped.

And a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent auto safety research center funded by insurers, found that drivers obeyed the law the first year but went back to their old behavior by the second year.

"I'll use my cellphone on speaker phone when cops are nearby," Harry Beck, a New York City transportation analyst, admitted -- via cellphone from New York. "If they aren't, I use it normally."

New Jersey officials said they don't even keep statistics on cellphone tickets because officers rarely issue citations.

Connecticut and the District of Columbia have also outlawed the use of hand-held cellphones while driving. And California is one of several states considering such a ban.

"My family lives in Pennsylvania, and they're going to do that very soon back there too," said Heather Panzella, an elementary school teacher from Huntington Beach who was waiting for a friend on a Westwood Boulevard corner at noon Thursday.

But Panzella wondered how much safer phones with headsets really are. "You have to still look down to dial the number. Using a cellphone is definitely a distraction," she said as her own phone rang, as if on cue. Her friend was calling to explain she was stuck in Westside traffic and would be late for their lunch date.

"She was driving. She wouldn't have been able to pull over to make a call. Just look at this traffic," Panzella said.

Indeed, critics of the proposed ban argue that hands-free models aren't much safer. Motorists must still dial the number and can still get distracted by calls while driving.

"A hand-held ban seems to send the message that hands-free is OK," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, adding that studies by the group found that cellphone use of any kind increases the likelihood of accidents. "You send the message that it is safe, which ... is not the case."

James Banks, a Los Angeles attorney, also has problems with a ban, and thinks the safety concerns are overblown.

"I think it's no more distracting than listening to the radio, no more distracting than changing CDs and all that navigational system junk," he said.

L.A. resident Pam Tyler thinks the legislation is a step in the right direction, though her feelings are even more extreme. She programs her cellphone to automatically direct all calls to her voicemail. The message begins with: "I can't take any calls right now because I'm probably driving ... "

"I have huge, huge antipathy for people driving while on their cellphones," she said. "They run red lights and they can't stay in their own lanes."

But forget about bad driving for a moment -- how about the fashion statement made by that headset or wireless Bluetooth earpiece?

"I'm not going to walk around 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with one of those things in my ear," said Thaddeus Breaux, a project manager from Los Angeles. Breaux said his girlfriend uses a hands-free headset -- and he doesn't exactly like the look.

Robert Nehmadi, owner of a Sherman Oaks cellphone store, says that newer wireless headsets are getting smaller and less noticeable.

"Like this one," he said, pulling it from his ear. "I'd forgotten I was even wearing this."

Nehmadi, of Woodland Hills, said he favors a law restricting the use of hand-held cellphones by motorists.

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