- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

If Patricia Pena has her way, drivers who talk on their wireless phones while operating a vehicle will someday be regarded with the same contempt as those who drive drunk.

On Nov. 3, Mrs. Pena's 2-year-old daughter, Morgan Lee, was killed when their car was hit broadside near their home in Bucks County, Pa. The other driver, who had run a stop sign, later admitted he had been distracted while dialing his cell phone. He received a $50 fine and two traffic tickets.

As for Mrs. Pena, she has since embarked upon what she now considers her life's work: warning the public about the dangers of talking on wireless phones while driving, and pushing for stiffer penalties for those who do. Working largely through the Internet, Mrs. Pena and her husband, Robert, have cobbled together a grass-roots movement that is starting to spread the gospel of cell-phone safety to local communities and state legislatures throughout the nation.

"I'm looking to set some standards for safe driving because if we don't, then the cell-phone companies and car companies will," said Mrs. Pena in a telephone interview from her home. "The same accident that killed Morgan Lee could happen tomorrow and the other driver could say, 'Oh, I was on my phone, I'm sorry.' And they'll walk. They'll kill your loved one and they'll walk."

Her mission won't be easy. Of the 84 million wireless phones in use nationwide today, most can be found in vehicles. A cellular car phone has increasingly become a professional necessity for real-estate agents, stockbrokers and salespeople, as well as a critical safety feature for all drivers.

On the other hand, nearly everyone who uses the roads has witnessed examples of weaving and near misses by seemingly oblivious drivers engrossed in phone conversations. And as their numbers grow, so have demands for limits on cell-phone use.

A 1997 New England Journal of Medicine study found that drivers engaged in phone calls were four times more likely to be involved in accidents, the same ratio as for intoxicated drivers. That included drivers using hands-free devices as well as those using hand-held phones. Already, 16 countries, including England and Japan, restrict phone use in moving vehicles.

Here in the United States, however, the issue has so far generated lots of talk but little action. At least 25 state legislatures have seen bills submitted over the past two years, ranging from legislation requiring drivers to pull over before they make a call to banning all but hands-free phone devices in cars.

So far, none has passed. In Colorado, for example, a bill that would have made talking on a cell phone a secondary traffic offense, similar to not wearing a seat belt, died in committee last month by a margin of 10 to 1. In Kentucky, one legislator came to the defense of the telecommunications industry earlier this month by boasting that she can drive while talking on the phone and applying makeup.

"It's a real hot topic in the state legislatures, but there hasn't been a whole lot of success," said Matt Sundeen, a transportation policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "There's not really any national safety group pushing this through, like you saw with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers; it's just individuals. And on the flip side, the telecommunications industry is really opposed to this their people always come to testify against these bills."

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Cambridge, Mass., brothers who host National Public Radio's "Car Talk," have spearheaded the nation's best-known anti-cell-phone drive. Known as "Drive Now, Talk Later," the campaign encourages drivers to wait until they've stopped to make all but emergency calls.

Legislation, said Tom Magliozzi in a recent column, is "an uphill fight, because the cell-phone industry is huge and powerful, and it is spending tons of money to make sure nobody gets in its way. Plus, virtually every self-important politician drives around talking on, what? A cell phone. So it won't be easy."

It's not that the industry isn't concerned with safety, counters Lisa Eide, manager of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association's wireless education program. The group, which represents the $37 billion industry, is in the third year of a national safety campaign to encourage cell-phone owners to use caution while talking and driving.

She cited a 1997 California Highway Patrol study that concluded education was more effective than legislation in promoting safe driving.

"The thing you've got to remember is that there are so many things you do when you drive, like eat, put on makeup, change your CD the list goes on," said Miss Eide. "What they're saying is, if you drive recklessly because you're eating and you dropped a french fry, that's not as bad as driving recklessly because you're on the phone.

"The difference is, of all the things you could be doing in your car, [talking on a cell phone] is the one that can save your life," she said.

Most of the calls to 911 reporting traffic emergencies are now made from cell phones, helping to reduce response times for police and rescue teams, she said. Some states even have programs called "Mobile Eyes," which reward callers who report drunken driving.

Some law-enforcement officials also note that current reckless-driving statutes can cover cell-phone incidents. "There are laws on the books dealing with reckless driving and if they're enforced, they're sufficient," said Miss Eide.

Critics such as Mrs. Pena disagree, pointing to the light punishment received by the man who killed her daughter. "I have a problem with her saying we have adequate laws for this, unless she believes this was adequate punishment," said Mrs. Pena. "The more severe the penalty, the more careful people are going to be."

She's lobbying for what has been dubbed "Morgan's Law," a bill to restrict car cell-phone use in Pennsylvania. The bill was proposed by Republican state Sen. Joe Conti, who says he ran for office "to promote less government" but jumped on the issue after seeing a series of phone-related driving mishaps in the Philadelphia area.

"It may not be more of a distraction than putting on makeup or turning around to discipline a child, but with the exponential growth of cell-phone use, we have a dramatic increase in the number of users," Mr. Conti said. "It's the magnitude of the use that's the problem."

The problem is likely to get worse, he said, as televisions, fax machines and other technologies make their way into cars. Just last week, two of the nation's largest automobile manufacturers, Ford and General Motors, announced they had struck deals to install on-line service in their new vehicles.

After months of negotiations, some local cell-phone providers are starting to come around, Mr. Conti said. One has agreed to make available voice-activated wireless service within two years, he said, while another is taking the lead on a public awareness program.

"If the industry continues to move in a positive direction, we may be able to move away from bills to restrict the cell-phone industry to bills to increase the penalties against violators," he said.

Pennsylvania is the state most likely to pass such legislation, says Mr. Sundeen, thanks in part to the publicity surrounding Morgan Lee's death. Shortly after the accident, two Pennsylvania towns Hilltown and Conshocken approved ordinances requiring drivers to use hands-free phones only except in cases of emergency. A third city, Brooklyn, Ohio, bans hand-held phone use, but allows hands-free speakerphones.

Three states California, Florida and Massachusetts have laws on the books regarding car phones, but their restrictions are minimal. "In Massachusetts, for example, there's a law saying you have to have one hand on the steering while while using a cell phone," said Mr. Sundeen.

Mark Burris, a research associate at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, said the main obstacle to passing legislation is the lack of information. Right now, most states don't require police to note if a cell phone was in use during a traffic mishap. In 1998, officers made just 61 references to cell phones in accident reports nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Mr. Burris, who released a driving-while-talking study last year, said his first recommendation would be to add some check boxes to accident reports that would state whether a cell phone was in the car or in use during an accident.

"This is quite a big freedom we're talking about taking away," said Mr. Burris. "You'd want to have concrete proof that it was a problem before you did it."

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