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States, cities crack down on driving while dialing

Drivers with cellphones - and evidence that they pose a road hazard - lead to new limits on car talk.

At a busy intersection, the driver navigates a left-hand turn, one hand on the steering wheel, the other gripping a cellphone.

By now, all motorists have witnessed such a scene, one that sets many drivers' teeth on edge. But does it constitute a road hazard?

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State lawmakers and civic leaders across the US are grappling with that question, and a small but growing number of them are concluding that some regulation - or even an outright ban - is in order.

The nascent crackdown comes amid record levels of cellphone sales. Some 86 million Americans own cellular phones, and every 2-1/4 seconds another customer signs up for service.

Armed with evidence that cellphone use while driving can contribute to accidents, lawmakers in 22 states are considering legislation to ban driver conversations via hand-held cellphones. The community of Brooklyn, Ohio, last year became the first in the nation to prohibit cellphone use while driving. Two Pennsylvania towns have since followed suit.

Aspen, Colo., Cambridge, Mass., and Santa Monica, Calif., are among cities considering banning drivers' use of all but "hands-free" cellphones. In New York City, cabbies cannot use cellphones on the job.

For some, legislation that snatches cellphones from drivers' hands can't come fast enough. "I saw a lady driving on the '10' [Santa Monica Freeway] in L.A. doing her lipstick and talking on her cellphone at the same time," says Jay Anthony, a Denver software manager. "She must have been steering with her knee. All I can say is, I nearly got in an accident myself because I was so flabbergasted."

The problem will only get worse, Mr. Anthony adds, with all the new information that can be programmed to cellphones - from e-mail to stock reports. "The more options there are for people to do things other than drive, the more dangerous the situation becomes," he says.

Research indicates as much. A 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that risk of collision increases fourfold if a driver is using a cellphone. That's roughly the same risk as driving while intoxicated. Other studies show that the reaction time of drivers using a cellphone is delayed by a half-second.

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Industry experts, for their part, argue that new laws are not necessarily the best solution. "All the thoughtful research points to education as being a key element to improving safety," says Lisa Ihde, spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

In fact, the industry has been promoting an education campaign since 1997, she says, with tips such as "dial sensibly," "don't engage in emotional conversations," "use hands-free devices," and "keep conversations brief."

Legislation banning cell-phone use by drivers could have the unintended effect of decreasing road safety, Ms. Ihde cautions. "More than 100,000 calls a day are placed from cellphones to law-enforcement and emergency personnel.... We wouldn't want to see any kind of legislation that would deter drivers from taking a phone with them."

Yet self-regulation is unlikely to be an enduring solution, says Phil Weiser, a professor of law and telecommunications at the University of Colorado at Boulder (interviewed on his cellphone while driving to work). "Cellphones are a wonderful thing. But invariably, I see people getting carried away with it," he says. His own solution includes using a hands-free phone and limiting usage to freeway driving. Expecting all drivers to exercise such voluntary restraint is another matter, however.

"A blanket ban would be unfortunate," but cellphone use does pose a hazard, he says. "The important thing is to figure out a sensible policy before tragedy strikes. The way these things work is that nothing happens until there's some high-profile accident. Then legislators overreact."

Others say the public is best served if cellphone use is addressed within the broader context of driver behavior. "Distracted driving is a very common problem. Cellphones are only one aspect of that," says Stephanie Faul, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington. Eating, smoking, applying makeup, fussing with a baby in the back seat, and tuning the radio are all hazardous - yet people focus on cellphones because they're "an easy target," she says.

As for more laws regulating driver behavior, Ms. Faul is skeptical. "The question is: Is it actually going to do any good?"

Here in Colorado, the State Patrol is neutral on the issue of legislation. Trooper Rod Campbell, patrol spokesman, says one basic truth should be obvious, with or without additional laws: "When you get into a motor vehicle, you have a responsibility to operate it with 100 percent of your concentration."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society