- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

The D.C. Council yesterday heard public feedback on two proposals to bar motorists from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving — except in cases of emergency — a distraction many say causes unnecessary risk of accidents and fatalities.
One of the two bills being considered by the Public Works Committee would require hands-free devices on drivers' cell phones. The other would require the police department to track accidents involving cell phones and authorize $100 fines for violators.
Six members of the 13-member council sponsored the legislation, which is likely to be approved in some form, council sources said. If so, the District will closely follow New York, the only state so far that has enacted a ban on hand-held cell-phone use while driving.
"I know that there are emergency situations **in which people need to use their phones**, but lots of people are chitchatting, too," said at-large council member Carol Schwartz, Republican.
"I would like to get those people to think about what they are doing. We live in a dense city and need people with full-time attention on their driving," said Mrs. Schwartz, a sponsor of the bill.
In the District, the Major Crash Investigation Unit found that of 50 traffic fatalities, two possibly involved cell-phone use, police officials said.
Currently, more than 115 million Americans chat on cell phones, including almost 240,000 living in the District and more than 300,000 others who drive into the city each day from Virginia and Maryland. Cell-phone industry officials say that total is expected to double in the next five years.
At-Large Councilman Harold Brazil said cell-phone use represents a cognitive driving hazard. Members of the Partnership For Safe Driving agree. They would like to see a total ban on cell-phone use by drivers.
But representatives of Cingular Wireless feel it's enough to enforce existing traffic laws against impeded or distracted driving.
Verizon Wireless said it can support requirements for hands-free devices but would like to see such laws phased in to give customers the opportunity to upgrade their equipment.
Although New York is the first state to enact cell-phone legislation, more than half the states, including Maryland, have considered similar laws and at least a dozen localities have established bans, starting in 1999 with Brooklyn, Ohio. Bans have been proposed in 40 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"Education is the answer, not legislation," said Kathleen Kittrick of AT&T; Wireless Inc. "Focus on the behavior, not the device."
Cell phones are at the bottom of the list of distractions after radio-channel switching and eating, according to a study this year by the North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center for the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. The study found that distracted driving caused about 284,000 crashes annually, or 15 percent of all accidents.
"Distracted driving is a very complex problem," said AAA spokesman Lon Anderson.
D.C. police department officials and most representatives from the wireless industry agree that targeting a single device isn't the most effective means of eliminating driver distractions and are urging the council to do more to reduce the problem of distracted driving.
Assistant Chief Alfred Broadbent of the Metropolitan Police Department applauded the council for taking on the issue but pleaded for a more expansive look at distracted driving.
"Our laws should cover all common distractions to drivers, **including** reading, writing, personal grooming, consuming food," Chief Broadbent said.
"My point is this: If we restrict our efforts at curtailing distracted driving to cell phones only, we are ignoring other sources of dangerous driving and are missing an opportunity to have a larger, more sustained impact on the problem," he said.
Chief Broadbent recommends the District's current laws against distracted driving be tightened, and fines — now just $25 — be raised to $100.
Opponents and proponents are concerned about how to enforce a law banning the use of cell phones while driving, since a similar D.C. law mandating full attention while driving has not produced hoped-for results.
"Is our law adequate?" asked at-large council member Phil Mendelson, a co-sponsor of the bill. "I don't think drivers can use a cell phone without driving poorly. But we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us."
While council members see headsets as a viable alternative, Partnership for Safe Driving Director Lisa Sheikh said the proposals don't go far enough. The organization advocates a complete ban on cell phones in cars nationwide.
"These **phones** are unsafe and completely unnecessary," she said. "This is one case, **to quote a professor** where invention has become the mother of necessity."
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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