A revolt against dialing while driving

From the front seat of his Suffolk County police cruiser, Bill Treubig spots the offender, a woman in a late-model Lexus SUV. As she starts to enter the Long Island Expressway, the highway patrolman hits his flashing lights.

At first, the woman isn't sure why she's being pulled over. The officer quickly makes it clear: He saw her driving with a phone up to her ear - an offense that will cost her $100.

The citations being given out here along the blacktop in Long Island are part of a growing nationwide revolt against dialing while driving.

From Suffolk County, N.Y., to Brooklyn, Ohio, at least 10 localities have passed laws ordering motorists to "just say no" to phone use in the car. Some 40 states are considering similar restrictions.

Behind the movement is a growing concern about safety as cellphones become as ubiquitous in cars as cup holders. At last count, some 107 million people - more than 1 in 3 Americans - now use the phones just about everywhere: in restaurants, on elevators, at the theater.

While many of these public conversations are annoying enough, it is the danger of serious distractions behind the wheel that is making them a target of activists and lawmakers alike.

"I don't think there is anyone driving today who hasn't been victimized or cut off by a driver who's holding a cellphone to an ear," says state Sen. Carl Marcellino (R), author of a bill introduced earlier this month in the New York Senate.

Although the bills have failed in the past, there is a new momentum, as reflected in public-opinion surveys. For example, a recent poll from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., found that New Yorkers support a ban on hand-held cellphones by an 87 percent to 10 percent margin. The legislative push on the state level is also getting support from an unlikely source - Verizon, the nation's largest cellular company. It is concerned that the patchwork nature of local laws could be confusing to motorists.

But the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the industry's lobbying group in Washington, claims the accident statistics don't bear out the anecdotal evidence of bad driving. Instead, the group is calling for studies, enforcement of current laws against reckless driving, and education.

"Let's collect the data and see if it is something we should be addressing," says Dee Yankoskie, a spokeswoman for the industry.

It's a question that is coming under more scrutiny in Washington, where next month the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans hearings on driver distraction. At the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is doing research on the same thing. That will be supplemented with tests using a new $60 million simulator of driving conditions.

One reason for the push around the country is Patty Pena, head of Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, a Philadelphia-based grass-roots effort. In November 1999, her 2-year-old, Morgan Lee, was killed when Patty's car was broadsided after a driver using a cellphone failed to heed a stop sign.

Since then she has talked to city councils and county and state legislatures. She has appeared on talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey's. Her website hawks bumper stickers from the radio show "Car Talk" that say, "Drive Now, Talk Later."

After Rich Hovan, a policeman from Brooklyn, Ohio, met her on the Oprah show, he started handing out fliers with Morgan Lee's photograph with the tickets he issues for driving while cellphoning.

Brooklyn, a Cleveland suburb, was the first community in the nation to pass driving-and-phoning legislation. Since the law was enacted in September 1999, police have issued 459 tickets. The first offense is a $3 fine; the second requires a court appearance with a fine as high as $100.

The catalyst for the law was a traffic accident that took place directly in front of the former police chief. While the chief watched, a man went through a light and then was broadsided. "The man driving the car was still talking on the phone as he spun around," says Mary-Jo Banish, assistant clerk of the council.

Instead, communities want motorists who need to chat to use hands-free technology, such as headsets. This is also the push from Verizon, which has 28 million customers.

During several hours of cruising Long Island roads, it appears many drivers are wearing headsets. And officer Treubig estimates that even most of those he's ticketed own a headset or a hands-free device but weren't using it. He's not certain why.

Verizon's Mr. Nelson says the company is offering one set at $14.95, below their normal retail price.

Some legislators think the Verizon approach represents a middle ground they can support. That's the case in California, where state Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D) of Palo Alto has introduced Bill 911, which would require all California drivers to use hands-free devices by Jan. 1, 2005.

Mr. Simitian's proposal may seem strange for California, where it seems almost everybody has a cellphone pressed to their ear. And Simitian admits he has had people ask him why not ban drinking coffee or putting on makeup while driving. "I reply to them that drinking coffee is a brief activity, while using a cellphone is an extended activity."

He expects the bill to go to committee this month. If it meets with smooth sailing, he says it could be law as early as this fall.

In communities where the law has been enacted, most motorists seem to have gotten the message. Over the course of 2-1/2 hours, officer Treubig only pulls over two offenders. "If they are getting wiser, then mission accomplished," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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