- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

District of Columbia Council members plan to introduce a bill today that would ban the use of hand-held cellular telephones while driving, making the District the latest jurisdiction to wade into a national debate on the devices.

Council members hope the bill gets rid of at least one distraction for harried motorists and sparks a debate on the larger issue of using technology while driving.

"We feel it is a very dangerous situation, the way they are not paying attention," said council member Harold Brazil, an at-large Democrat who will introduce the bill with four co-sponsors, including Chairman Linda Cropp, at-large Democrat.

Violators would receive $100 citations under the measure, which makes exceptions for driver emergencies and emergency personnel.

At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Brazil cited the 1999 case of William Howard Norris, who died after a bus driver talking on a cellular phone ran him over.

Mr. Brazil represents the man's family in a civil lawsuit against driver Carlos Garcia, who was convicted of negligent homicide last year.

"To lose a brother because someone was talking on a cell phone, it adds to the pain," said James Norris, the victim's brother. "Technology is good, but technology can be deadly in the hands of the wrong people."

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the time has come for a public-policy debate on the proliferation of helpful, yet distracting technology in vehicles, such as navigator systems, e-mail and fax capability.

"We need to start drawing some lines about what's appropriate and what's not," said Mrs. Patterson, who demonstrated using a "hands-free" cellular phone with an earpiece.

Other co-sponsors of the measure are Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, and Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat.

The D.C. bill also would mandate that police officers record whether a vehicle in a wreck contained a cellular phone, and investigate whether it was on when the accident occurred. The Department of Motor Vehicles would then publish statistics about the relationship between accidents and cellular-phone use.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that since 1995 at least 37 states including Maryland have weighed regulations on cellular-phone use while driving. None has banned the use of the phones while driving, but three have enacted minor restrictions, and others are collecting data on cellular-phone involvement in wrecks.

Nationwide, only about 11 jurisdictions have various regulations on cellular-phone use while driving.

The problem grabbed local and national headlines in December during the trial of Jason Jones, a 20-year-old Naval Academy midshipman whose vehicle in November 1999 careered off a road striking the parked car of John and Carole Hall of Long Island, who died at the scene.

A Prince George's County (Md.) Circuit Court judge acquitted Mr. Jones of two counts of vehicular manslaughter.

There is little agreement among policy-makers, industry representatives and scientists about the hazards of using cellular phones while driving. They point to other distractions, such as screaming children, lighting a cigarette or changing a radio station.

Opponents of restricting cellular-phone use while driving also point out that phones allow motorists to make calls during emergencies and inform police of crimes.

"Anything that's in the car that causes you to look away from the road can be a distraction," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic region. He believes the legislation is premature at this point "especially in the metropolitan area, where drivers can cross three jurisdictions in a matter of a few minutes."

With new voice-automation technology, this "may be a problem that doesn't need regulation," he said.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association opposes banning cellular-phone use while driving and wants states rather than a patchwork of local jurisdictions to settle the issue.

"State laws already prohibit distracted driving. We feel no new legislation is necessary," said Dee Yankoski, manager of wireless-education programs for CTIA.

Her group funds efforts to encourage drivers to use hands-free devices or speakerphones, and wants governments to join.

But the Metropolitan Police Department's No. 2 official supports the bill, saying "it's one more opportunity to save lives."

Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said he sees "too many people not paying attention to their driving because they're yakking on the phone."

"There's a way to balance technology and safe driving habits," he said.

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