- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

NEW YORK — New Yorkers dialed into the debate over the banning of hand-held cellular phones yesterday, some greeting the imminent law with relief, others comparing it to the latest intrusion of a controlling Big Brother.

New York became the first state to pass such a ban Monday when the Democratic-controlled Assembly voted 125-19 for the measure, just a week after the Republican-controlled Senate approved the bill. Gov. George E. Pataki is expected to sign the legislation later this week.

Politicians may have fashioned and approved the law, but they are probably the group of people least affected by it. Most lawmakers relax in a back seat while a hired driver does their bidding.

"I think everybody should get a driver," said former Mayor Edward I. Koch, barely disguising a giggle.

"There are distractions while driving, but this has been a major one. Anyone using a cell phone while driving is potentially dangerous," Mr. Koch added.

The former mayor, who said he has had a cellular phone for years, does not view the measure as a partisan issue. "This is the [former Mayor Fiorello] La Guardia clean-up-the-garbage solution. He said, 'When you clean up the garbage, you don't do it as a Democrat or a Republican.'"

Up and down Manhattan's teeming streets, a mecca for cell phone users on foot and in cars, opinion ran in favor of the ban.

Writer and liquor fortune heir Tony Cointreau, 60, thinks the prohibition is long overdue.

"Basically I'm still living in the little house on the prairie; cell phones are useful, and so is the Internet, but they're not a way of life and they're becoming an addition to constant stimulation," he said. "I think the traffic is dangerous enough and cabdrivers need all their concentration. Cell phones are the main reason I use a seat belt in a taxi."

According to a Quinnipiac University poll, more than 87 percent of voters statewide support a ban on cellular phone use at the wheel. An estimated 6 million cell phones are in the state, but no accepted research links cellular phones to accidents and deaths on the road.

The legislation also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to study cellular phone use and how much of a distraction it is.

Under the law, drivers can use a hand-held phone only in an emergency. They can use a headset or hands-free cellular phone while driving and can dial while driving. During November, anyone breaking the law will draw a verbal warning, but from Dec. 1 to March 2, violators get socked with fine of up to $100. Judges can waive fines until March, if drivers can prove that they have bought a headset or speakerphone.

What constitutes a distraction is not a point on which cellular phone users agree. Former Republican congressman John Le Boutillier, 48, said, "I'm all for it."

The Long Island native, who has been ahead of the curve with a hands-free unit in his car for more than a decade, added, "It's distracted driving, just like women putting makeup on while they're at the wheel."

Foul, cried Ann Lane Breit, a Westchester County schoolteacher who asked, "Will they tell me next that I can't drink my cappuccino, or comb my hair or put on lipstick?"

In an interview conducted over her cell phone, Miss Breit said she felt torn over the issue of restricting cellular phone use while driving. "It's dangerous, especially when you have to look down while you're driving. But I really don't like the idea of big government telling me what to do in my car."

Elizabeth Little, a Republican member of the Assembly from Glens Falls, echoed those views, saying it's impossible to legislate away every highway distraction, whether it be a crying baby or a cup of spilled coffee.

The ban is sure to cut into the round-the-clock hours of talk show programming that rely almost exclusively on drivers who call in. Sean Hannity, WABC radio talk show host, dislikes the ban.

"My kid's going to have a beeper and a cell phone when he's 5," Mr. Hannity confidently told a caller yesterday. "I would never, ever have an accident. I want everybody to know: Don't kill yourself or anybody else in a car. If you don't feel safe, pull over. For me, I don't have a problem. You have to be able to determine your own level of comfort."

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