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Calls to curb use of car phones on rise

BROOKLYN, Ohio - The image of the accident remains strong in John Coyne's mind.

A young man had slammed his car into the back of an elderly woman's car right in front of city hall. The man fell out of his car, still clutching his cell phone in his hand.

“Cell phones are a fine instrument. They're a great progress in America. But people have to use good judgment,” said Mr. Coyne, former mayor of the four-square-mile Cleveland suburb of 12,000.

After the 1999 accident, the city enacted the nation's first restrictive law on cell-phone use while driving.

The ordinance, which took effect in September, 1999, prohibits a driver from answering, listening to, talking on, or dialing a hand-held cell phone except under three circumstances, said Patrolman Richard Hovan, head of the traffic division for Brooklyn police.

These circumstances are: calling for emergency help, if the cell phone is a hands-free device with a speaker or microphone, or if the driver pulls over and parks the vehicle before using the phone.

The first offense is a $3 fine. No points are added to the driver's record. For subsequent offenses, the maximum fine totals $100, Mr. Coyne said.

Since the ordinance was enacted, about 350 tickets have been issued, even though signs at the city's entrances warn motorists with a picture of a cell phone and the phrase “park to talk.”

“We want to make it an educational-type tool. We don't want to hurt anybody, but we want to let them know how dangerous [cell phones] can become,” Patrolman Hovan said.

The officer said he thinks restrictions on cell phones while driving eventually will become law throughout the country, just as seat-belt laws - which also originated in Brooklyn - are now standard nationwide.

The Cleveland suburb of North Olmsted last week enacted a cell-phone law. Under the law, a driver can use a cell phone. But if a driver gets into an accident or violates a traffic law while using a cell phone, the motorist can be given a $3 fine plus court costs up to $75.

In New York, taxi drivers are not allowed to talk on the phone while on fares. At least 300 jurisdictions have or are considering measures, said Matt Sundeen, a senior policy specialist in transportation for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Although cell-phone bill proposed last year in Ohio and Michigan went nowhere, some legislators are planning to resurrect them in the coming sessions.

As early as next month, Ohio Rep. Catherine Barrett (D, Cincinnati) plans to present a bill that would fine drivers $100 if they are cited in an accident in which they were using a cell phone. Another part of the bill would encourage the use of hands-free phones.

Michigan Rep. Bruce Patterson (R, Canton) plans to rework a bill that would add one point to a driver's record and would fine a driver $25 if law-enforcement officials determine that the use of a cell phone caused an accident, said Chris Gillett, the representative's legislative aide.

No states ban cell-phone use in vehicles, but three states - California, Florida, and Massachusetts - have minor restrictions. Legislators in at least 37 states have considered laws regulating cell phones, although most of the proposed bills have gone nowhere.

“The bills vary in severity from outright prohibition to using hands-free devices to targeting particular drivers. Most haven't passed for a variety of reasons. Cell phones are something a lot of people use. There are over 100 million subscribers, and 85 percent of them use them while driving. Legislators are real reluctant to take that away,” Mr. Sundeen said.

Toledo police Sgt. Paul Kerschbaum said one woman apparently thought she was inconvenienced when he stopped her for speeding and improper lane changes on I-475 in the fall.

“She said, `Excuse me,' when her phone rang and I was asking for her insurance and other information. She had to take the call. I just dropped the ticket in her lap,” he said.

While no data is kept in Ohio on accidents involving drivers using cell phones, the sergeant estimated that about 10 percent of the people he stops for weaving or other traffic offenses are on the phone. Although not required, he writes in the comment section of the tickets he issues whether a cell phone was involved.

Ohio Rep. Jeanine Perry (D, Toledo) proposed an amendment to a transportation bill during the last legislative session that would have required accident reports to be more specific on whether cell-phone use contributed to a crash.

“Let's take a closer look at this and collect more information,” she said of the amendment, which did not pass. “I think we'll keep the discussion on the burner.”

Ten states, including Michigan, have started to gather such data, Mr. Sundeen said.

Michigan State Police last year added “driver using cell phone” in the driver condition section of its crash reports. Data will not be available until later this year, said Theresa Page, manager of the state police's statistical information section.

Ohio does not collect such data. However, Sgt. Gary Lewis of the Ohio Highway Patrol said violations that involve cell phones can be recorded by law-enforcement officials as driver inattention, which accounts for 2.5 percent of fatal accidents statewide. In comparison, speeding is the No. 1 contributing factor in accidents at 19 to 21 percent, he said.

“There is no ability to track [cell-phone use] or to have a driver admit cell-phone use contributed to an accident,” he said.

Ohio Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin (R, Aurora) said she doesn't support cell-phone legislation. She said drivers should take responsibility for their actions.

“At what point are we going to draw the line?” she asked.

Others, especially those who use cell phones regularly, agree. High among the arguments made by motorists who use the phones: What about people who do other things while driving, such as eating, putting on lipstick, reading a newspaper, brushing their hair, or yelling at the back-seat kids?

“It's all about individual responsibility. You can't really legislate common sense,” said Dee Yankoskie, manager of wireless education programs for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. “The laws are already on the books. We feel no legislation is necessary.”

The industry group, which represents 95 percent of the wireless cell-phone carriers, encourages state legislators to have a “three-prong approach” to addressing the issue. That approach includes collecting data for all distractive driving, strictly enforcing reckless and careless driving laws, and educating cell-phone users.

Unfortunately, driver distraction always has been a concern.

In 1913, windshield wipers were standard on many American cars. But some people thought their movement might distract drivers and put them into trances. Radios were thought to distract drivers as the 1920s ended.

Today, automobile manufacturers are producing vehicles with navigation systems and other high-tech innovations, such as portable TVs and computers. Cell phones themselves are becoming more technologically savvy, with Internet and e-mail capabilities

With people always on the move, either for work or their personal lives, cell phones are, to some, considered a necessity.

Rob Cole, 21, of West Toledo said he talks on his phone while he drives and that he wouldn't support restrictions on that privilege. “It would be an inconvenience for me,” he said.

In 1997, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found the risk of being involved in a traffic incident while using a phone was nearly four times that of the average driver. However, the study determined that the increased risk resulted primarily from becoming absorbed in the conversation, not dialing or searching for phone numbers.

Earlier this month, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association reported a 61 percent drop in the number of cell phone-related traffic accidents after a ban imposed by law in April, said William Duncan, the association's USA general director. In the six months before the ban,, there were 1,473 cell phone-related crashes, compared with 580 during the six months after the law took effect.

Many people, even those working to restrict use of cell phones by drivers, said statistics wouldn't be accurate, because of the number of accidents, injuries, and deaths that have not been recorded.

One of those unrecorded deaths is that of Morgan Lee Pena. The 2-year-old died when her mother's vehicle was struck by a vehicle operated by a man driving and talking on a cell phone in a Philadelphia suburb in November, 1999.

After her death, the child's mother, Patricia Pena, founded a grass-roots group, Advocates for Cell Phone Safety.

“Technically, my daughter is not a statistic. If no one is collecting them, they aren't statistics,” Mrs. Pena said.

Officials in Hilltown Township, where the accident occurred, passed a cell-phone ban in December, 1999. A driver cited under the ordinance challenged it in county court, where a judge ruled the measure null and void because it was pre-empted by state regulations. Township officials haven't appealed, but they have asked for a statewide ban on hand-held cell-phone use while driving.

Although the ordinance was defeated, Mrs. Pena said it got local and state officials across the country addressing the issue of driving and talking on cell phones.

While legislators ponder laws regulating cell-phone use while driving, organizations such as the National Center for Statistics and Analysis - a part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that collects information on accidents - will be gathering data from studies on driver distractions and driver use of cell phones.

And that's OK with Mr. Coyne.

“[The cell-phone ordinance] was good for the city,” he said. “It's been a good thing for all human beings. If nothing else, it alerts the people here that there is a law.”

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