Forty states may ban cell phone driving
ALBANY, New York (AP) -- From New York to California, governments seem driven to distraction by motorists with cellular phones.
Carrying broad public support, bans on drivers using hand-held cell phones have been proposed in 40 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. None of the bills has passed yet, although a measure in New York is expected to win approval soon.
At least a dozen localities have already established bans, starting in 1999 with Brooklyn, Ohio, and recently including the three crowded counties around New York City -- Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk.
All the action has the wireless phone industry warning evidence is far from conclusive that cell phones are really responsible for the mayhem now being blamed on them. The industry says about 115 million cell phones are in use, both in cars and out of them.
"We do feel that they are getting a bad rap," said Dee Yanhoskie, manager of the wireless education program for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. "In 1905, windshield wipers where thought to be hypnotizing to the driver, and just think what a safety device they are. In 1930, they tried to take the radio out of the car because they thought it was disturbing to the peace and distracting."
Yanhoskie's Washington-based trade group is sponsoring a $9 million radio advertising campaign which urges drivers not to talk on hand-held phones if those conversations pose a danger to themselves or other drivers.
But the group also contends that cell phones are a potential lifesaver because stranded motorists can call for help or alert police to reckless drivers.
"There is no need for new legislation," Yanhoskie said.
A much-cited 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that using hand-held cell phones increases the chances of accidents while driving fourfold, or roughly the same as drunken driving.
Yet a AAA-funded study by the University of North Carolina showed driver distraction was a factor in 8 percent of 32,303 traffic accidents analyzed from 1995-99. Of those distracting activities, a plurality of drivers -- nearly 30 percent -- said they were distracted by something outside their vehicle. Only 1.5 percent were using a cell phone.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is urging more careful record keeping of whether drivers in traffic accidents were using hand-held phones. About 20 states have already started, the Cellular Communications and Internet Association said.
One of the association's members, Verizon Wireless, says it is not opposing a cell phone ban for drivers proposed in New York. The company even favors a national ban for the sake of uniformity, said Dan Mullin, director of public policy for Verizon Wireless in eight Northeastern states.
U.S. Sen. John Corzine, D-New Jersey, and U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-New York, introduced such bills on May 22. But federal restrictions seem unlikely, at least in the short term.
New York, however, is poised to enact a statewide law once Gov. George Pataki and the Legislature settle a state budget impasse.
A Quinnipiac University poll of New York voters in March showed 87 percent supported a ban on hand-held cell phone use by drivers. A similar nationwide poll in May by ABC News showed 7 out of 10 Americans favored a ban on drivers using hand-held phones.
The impending law has created interest in devices, ranging from $20 to $200, that allow cell phones to be used "handsfree."
"There are a lot of people reading about the potential of these bans and they're trying to stay ahead of the law and stay safe and legal," Garry Haltof, a design engineer from Penfield, near the western New York city of Rochester, who has created a cradle for cell phones on a car dashboard.
Haltof wishes one particular driver was using his invention last August when he was driving with his family on a highway outside Rochester.
The woman, with a cell phone to her ear, failed to slow down as she approached a road construction zone. She plowed into a car behind Haltof, which then rammed into Haltof's vehicle. All three vehicles suffered extensive damage. No one was hurt.
Haltof said when he walked back to the woman's car, she was still on the phone.
"I knocked on the window and she waves me away. I was incredulous," Haltof said. " It was kind of ironic that here I am trying to sell this stuff and I get smacked by a woman who was totally impervious to anything happening around her!"