- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

State legislators across the country will try again this year to prevent motorists from being driven to distraction.
Legislators in 11 states, including Maryland, have filed bills that would restrict the use of wireless phones while driving, and more could follow. Forty-three states debated similar bills last year.
That was up from 27 states in 2000 and 15 states in 1999.
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility that one or two more states will introduce a ban," said Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group in the District.
Despite growing interest in wireless phone laws, New York was the only state to restrict the use of phones while driving; it began enforcing the ban on Dec. 1. First-time violators there face a $100 fine. Until March, courts can dismiss tickets with proof that motorists have purchased a hands-free phone device. The New York law hasn't faced a legal challenge.
"Since New York made its move, I think it's gaining momentum," said Delegate John Arnick, Baltimore County Democrat, whose bill restricting wireless-phone use by motorists was heard in the Maryland General Assembly yesterday.
About 123 million Americans use wireless phones.
"New York has drawn attention to the issue. Legislators in other states will look at their bill as a model, but I'm not sure if that is enough to get legislation passed," said Matt Sundeen, a senior policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which compiles information for politicians on the issue but remains neutral.
Activity in state legislatures, many of which reconvene this week, comes despite a lack of conclusive evidence that wireless-phone use causes wrecks. Only about 20 states specify on crash reports when phones are a factor in accidents, so statistics are unreliable. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is urging more careful record keeping so lawmakers know whether drivers in traffic wrecks were using hand-held phones.
A report in May by the University of North Carolina determined that speaking on a wireless phone or placing or answering a call was the source of driver distraction in 1.5 percent of traffic wrecks nationwide from 1995 to 1999. That made it the eighth-leading distraction behind such activities as eating, adjusting a stereo or compact disc player or talking to others in a vehicle.
But that is not stopping lawmakers nationwide from forcing motorists either to stop using phones while driving or to use hands-free devices that let them keep both hands on the wheel while talking.
"If we can look further into the causes of wrecks, I think we will find that cell phones are responsible more often than we think," said state Rep. Reginald Meeks, a first-term Louisville Democrat in the Kentucky legislature who is sponsoring a bill to restrict phone use among motorists.
"When we document the number of accidents and near accidents that stem from cell-phone use, I think we will have an environment where politicians are more comfortable passing restrictions," he said.
Across the Ohio River in Indiana, state Sen. Glenn Howard, a Democrat, introduced a bill last week restricting cell-phone use. The day after he introduced his bill, a woman lost control of her car, hit a telephone pole and died in a wreck near Shelbyville, Ind. Sheriff's deputies said she was using a cell phone when she crashed.
"It could have been prevented," Mr. Howard said.
While some lawmakers view legislation as the best way to overcome a problem they say continues to worsen as wireless phones grow in popularity, phone companies argue that education, not legislation, is the best solution. Phone companies must teach consumers how to use wireless phones safely, said Kate O'Shaughnessy, spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless.
Only Verizon Wireless has broken from the industry. The company supports state laws in most cases to restrict wireless phone use. Verizon spokesman Jeffrey C. Nelson said state laws should allow the use of hands-free devices and allow an exemption for use of wireless phones in emergencies.
But targeting wireless phones is absurd because bad driving can result from multiple activities, Miss O'Shaughnessy said.
"Singling out a single distraction especially one that saves lives like cell phones does not solve the problem by any means," she said.
Others agree.
Law enforcement doesn't need new laws restricting cell-phone use to make roads safer, Cato's Mr. Thierer said, because they can accomplish that simply by enforcing laws against negligent driving.
"Don't ban a specific technology. Try to eliminate the behavior bad driving," he said.
Even AAA opposes laws restricting cell-phone use. The travel association typically condones the use of the phones with hands-free devices, AAA National spokesman Mantill Williams said.
But state legislators are undeterred.
"It's a safety issue," said state Rep. Ken Lancaster, a freshman Republican in the Alaska Legislature who last week introduced the state's first bill to restrict the use of wireless phones while driving.
"We've got basically one road running all the way through Alaska, and we've got to keep it safe," he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide