- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2001

Lawmakers had little trouble yesterday agreeing that cellular phones can cause dangerous distractions to drivers.

They also had little trouble agreeing they won't seek federal legislation to restrict cellular phone use while driving, partly because a new study shows cellular phones are a minor source of driver distraction.

"We believe it's premature to push for federal legislation in this area," L. Robert Shelton, executive director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told lawmakers yesterday.

But Mr. Shelton and other witnesses at the House Transportation and Infrastructure highway and transit subcommittee agreed cellular phone use while driving is a growing distraction with potentially deadly consequences.

Supermodel Niki Taylor suffered severe injuries recently when a car she was riding in crashed into a utility pole after the driver answered a cell phone.

About 110 million Americans own a cell phone. Mr. Shelton said about 54 percent have their phone in the car when they drive, and 73 percent of those talk on their phone while driving.

Patricia Pena, a Pennsylvanian who founded Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, told lawmakers yesterday she began a crusade in support of cell phone restrictions on drivers after a 1999 wreck killed her young daughter, Morgan. The man who hit Mrs. Pena's car ran a stop sign and barreled into her car while talking on a cell phone. Morgan died of massive head injuries, and the man who caused the wreck was given two traffic tickets and a $50 fine, she said during her tearful testimony.

Better technology could alleviate the problem with wrecks caused by cell-phone-using drivers, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting a study to determine whether hands-free phones are safer than standard cell phones.

"Whatever the size of the cell phone problem, I think we can say the problem is growing," said Rep. Robert A. Borski, Pennsylvania Democrat.

But skeptics said that before steps are taken to restrict cell phone use, more data should be collected to show how many accidents are caused by phone-toting drivers.

"Cell phones are not a large issue yet," said Mark Lee Edwards, managing director of traffic safety for AAA.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says about 25 percent of car wrecks are caused by driver distraction, based on a 1996 study. A separate study by the University of North Carolina's highway safety research center released this week concluded that adjusting a car radio or putting a compact disc in a car stereo is responsible for 11.4 percent of wrecks, while using a cell phone is responsible for 1.5 percent of wrecks.

That data may be skewed, however, because just 20 states have police forms that include "cell phones" as the cause of a distraction, Mr. Shelton said.

Even in states where reliable data is available, cell phones are a minor cause of car wrecks, said Thomas Wheeler, president and chief executive of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, in the District.

Less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the 30,994 car wrecks in Tennessee in 1999 were caused by drivers using cell phones, according to information from the state's Department of Safety's uniform crash report.

More important, Mr. Wheeler said, the cell phone has become the most significant safety device available to motorists, and an estimated 120,000 emergency calls are placed on the phones each day.

State legislatures in 27 states, including Maryland, have considered cell phone restrictions this year. Just three states have imposed some restrictions on drivers, though no state has imposed a ban on cell phone use while driving.

Nine local jurisdictions in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey have passed prohibitions on cell phone use while driving.

Until more data is collected linking cell phone use to car accidents, a federal prohibition is unlikely. That and acknowledgment that cell phones represent just one minor distraction to drivers is just what the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association hoped to hear yesterday.

Mrs. Pena, though, said she will keep pushing for cell phone restrictions.

"I would never be able to live with myself if another little child had to go through what my little girl went through and I did nothing to try to help," she said.

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