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Only 1 state acts on cell phone ban at the wheel

Posted: Monday, March 04, 2002

DAYTON, Ohio -- Many states over the past year have considered banning the use of hand-held cellular phones while driving, but so far only one -- New York -- has taken that step.

More than 2,000 tickets have been issued since the ban took effect Nov. 1 and at least 20 states have begun tracking cell phone involvement in traffic accidents, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Even so, states may be reluctant to single out cell phones, which business people on the go consider essential, said conference spokesperson Bill Wyatt.

''State legislatures are looking at it within the bigger picture,'' Wyatt said. ''Are cell phones the only problem? How different is using a cell phone while driving than putting on your makeup or tuning the radio?''

Last year, cell phone legislation was introduced in 43 states, 35 of them calling for an outright ban on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

Some safety advocates believe the legislation has been stalled by powerful cell phone lobbyists.

Patricia Pena's 2-year-old daughter Morgan Lee Pena was killed in 1999 when a driver dialing a cell phone ran a stop sign and hit the car the mother was driving in Pennsylvania.

She said many lawmakers don't bother to research the issue themselves and the cell phone industry has convinced them that bans are unnecessary.

''They hire lobbyists to cover every state capital in the nation and put on the pressure,'' said Pena, of Perkasie, Pa. ''The telecommunications lobby is huge, powerful and has lots and lots of money.''

Travis Larson, spokesperson for the Washington-based Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said his group does not lobby at the state level. However, he said the association supplies information to cell phone companies that do.

In 1999, the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn became the first community in the country to ban the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers. Brooklyn fines drivers $35 for a first offense, with a possible $100 fine for a second offense.

Brooklyn Patrolman Rich Hovan, who wrote the first of what now totals 650 cell phone tickets in the city, jots the initials of Morgan Lee Pena on tickets and gives each motorist a photo of the girl.

''They always have an excuse about why they use the phone,'' Hovan said. ''I ask them, 'Would you accept that as an excuse if somebody killed your daughter?' I haven't had anyone tell me 'Yeah.'''

Brooklyn is among at least 14 communities around the country that have restricted the use of cell phones by drivers, according to the state legislature conference. A statewide ban for Ohio was introduced in the Legislature last year but is languishing in committee.

A few states have adopted lesser restrictions. Arizona and Massachusetts ban school bus drivers from using cell phones while driving.

Since Brooklyn imposed its ban, local free-lance photographer Jamie Janos said he has been using an earpiece with his cell phone, which he relies on for assignments.

''It's extremely important to me because this is my way to communicate,'' Janos said, adding that his business doubled when he began using a cell phone. ''Without it, I can't work effectively.''

He said the change has been an inconvenience, but he puts up with it because of safety.

Tim Hurd, spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said there are no reliable statistics on crashes involving cell phones, but he estimated that 25 percent of crashes are related to distractions.

''There is a broad problem of driver distraction that includes cell phone use, but is not restricted to cell phone use,'' said Stephanie Faul, spokesperson for the Washington-based AAA Founda-tion for Traffic Safety.

''People feed their babies. People write. People read. People eat. They put on makeup. They comb their hair,'' Faul said. ''Any legislation should encompass the full range of distractions.''



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