- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Lawmakers in the Washington area have made only tentative efforts to enact the same kind of ban on drivers speaking on hand-held cell phones approved by the New York legislature yesterday.
Although the New York legislation is the first by a state, 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. At least 23 countries, including Great Britain, Italy, Israel and Japan, prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones.
Mantill Williams, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, predicted that Maryland's failure to enact cell-phone-safety legislation would be short-lived.
"I would say it's probably more likely it would pass in Maryland than any place," Mr. Williams said. "There seem to be some victim advocates in that state that make it more likely. Virginia is a little more conservative in passing this kind of legislation. So far we haven't seen any activity in D.C."
There are about 115 million cell phones in use in the United States, according to industry figures.
A 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine said the hand-held phones posed about the same risk for drivers as drunken driving. The study found an accident was four times more likely when using a hand-held cell phone.
Virginia has the only active cell-phone bill in the Washington area. It proposes that the Department of Motor Vehicles study the risks created by distracted drivers, such as from cell-phone use. Two Maryland bills have tried to ban cell-phone use by drivers but so far have failed to win enough votes. No legislation on cell-phone use is pending in the District.
Two bills on cell-phone safety were introduced in Congress this year. Both bills would withhold transportation funds from states that fail to ban or restrict hand-held cell phone use by drivers.
The first federal legislation was introduced by Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a New York Democrat. His spokesman, Jordan Goldes, said the New York legislature's ban approved yesterday was encouraging.
"We're very pleased by it," Mr. Goldes said. "We'd like to see every state do this. We would hope people would use common sense when it comes to things like this but often they don't and they need a little prodding from the law."
The bills drew criticism from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Telecommunications giant Verizon, however, supports the federal legislation.
The American Automobile Association warned against a ban that could be unrealistically broad.
"Just as government is unlikely to ban radios in cars, eliminate fast-food restaurants or insist that passengers not be allowed to speak with a driver, mobile phones and other in-vehicle devices are fast becoming a reality that will not be halted by hastily conceived laws or regulations," said Mark Lee Edwards, AAA's traffic safety director, during a May 9 hearing before the House subcommittee on highways and transit.
AAA monitors legislative action nationwide on restricting cell-phone use by drivers.
Meanwhile, the father of a 15-year-old Great Falls, Va., girl killed last year by a hit-and-run driver who might have been distracted by her own cell-phone use filed a lawsuit this month with potentially far-reaching implications. The lawsuit relies on a rule of law that makes employers liable for their employees' negligence.
In the case of lawyer Jane Wagner, her law firm is being sued for $30 million after she hit and killed Langley High School student Naeun Yoon in March 2001. Mrs. Wagner might have been making a business call on her cell phone while driving to her Sterling, Va., home when the accident occurred. She said she assumed she had hit a deer in the road and drove away. She later pleaded guilty to failing to stop after an accident.
The lawsuit, filed in Loudoun County Circuit Court, says Mrs. Wagner logged cell-phone calls around the time of the accident and continued to work from her home after she hit Miss Yoon. At the time, she worked in the Reston office of the California law firm Cooley Godward.
"Defendant Jane Wagner billed numerous hours to clients when traveling outside of the office, even when en route between destinations, and this was done both with the expectation and acquiescence of Cooley Godward and served as a direct benefit to Cooley Godward in the form of increased billable hours," the lawsuit says.
If the lawsuit is successful, it would extend the liability for accidents during cell-phone use to employers for the first time, according to lawyers knowledgeable about personal liability claims.
"I haven't heard of anything like this before," said George Mason University Law School professor Lloyd Cohen. Nevertheless, he said, a court ruling for Miss Yoon's father is possible.
"This is not an unusual theory," he said. "The wrongful acts that you commit while in the course of carrying out services for your employer can be attributed to your employer. The general theory is that if she was doing law-firm work, there is nothing unusual about holding the law firm liable."

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