How ultimate car culture handles a cellphone ban

California - land of palm trees and Palm Pilots - jeers and cheers a bill that says, 'Let your fingers do the driving'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Scriptwriter Rudy Glenn says the issue has stuck in his craw ever since that scary moment last February when he entered an intersection only to be broadsided by a man gabbing on a cellphone.

"The guy was just looking into space and having a good ol' time jabbering away, and 'wham' ... I get crumpled from the side," says Mr. Glenn.

The collision was between metal grocery carts at the entrance to the frozen-food aisle at Ralph's Supermarket.

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"Cellphone use here is getting entirely out of hand," says Glenn. "If a stupid collision like this could happen in the supermarket, don't tell me it's not happening out on the roads."

Mr. Glenn and lawmakers in 48 states are watching closely to see if the nation's most car-populous and cellphone-dependent state will approve $20-$50 fines for drivers who insist on cradling a cellphone by their ear.

New York was the first to prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones, but two such bills have died here in the past two years. If the current legislation, which has now passed the Assembly, makes it through, officials say resistance to such laws in other states is likely to crumble. Twenty-two states are considering similar bills this year.

"We feel if we can create a market of California's 21 million drivers who are suddenly in need of reliable and safe hands-free phone technology for cars, companies will create it more quickly and other states will follow us," says Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D) of Palo Alto, who sponsored the bill, AB 45. Opponents say that the state has far more pressing issues on its plate and that the legislation too narrowly singles out phones as a distraction when other activities - such as eating, applying makeup, and disciplining children - are also problematic.

But a recent California Highway Patrol study found that cellphones are a factor in more driver-distracted accidents than are kids, pets, eating, and personal hygiene combined. Armed with that research and new statistics estimating the death rate from such accidents as more than four times the rate two years ago (600 deaths in 2001 compared to 2,600 last year) Mr. Simitian's bill finally won in a 41-26 vote.

Accusations of 'nanny government'

Cellphone companies and many consumers fear any regulations that could stymie their growing reliance on cellphones in cars. Some legislators and law agencies point out that police already have the power to fine drivers who appear distracted.

"This is nanny government at its most inappropriate," says Andrew Kiefer, legislative director for Assemblyman Doug La Malfa, a Republican who has complained that the bill amounts to governmental meddling. "The state has a $35 billion budget deficit that it is avoiding while trying to micromanage private activities of citizens. If police see a person is distracted - whether it's reading Danielle Steel, shaving, or eating a cheeseburger - they already have the power to pull that person over and give them a ticket."

Order in a land where cellphones rule

National observers say the fight will be toughest in California because of an entrenched car culture that's left little room for alternative modes of transportation. Daylong traffic jams across southern California have also made cellphone use in cars a normal part of many lives - and a tool without which, they fear, their livelihoods would be threatened.

"It's the California experience to get everywhere in your car," says Steve Kohler, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. "What we see is more and more miles being driven for more and more hours, so that people have no other choice but to do more work in their cars."

Such is the case for independent film producer Kathy Main who says she spends 10 hours a week talking on her cellphone in the car, while commuting between two and four hours per day.

"It would be an excruciating waste of time to spend that much time in my car and not be able to get my business done," says Main, who calls clients and scriptwriters en route from Santa Clarita to downtown, and other suburbs. Already an advocate of the hands-free model she uses, Main welcomes legislation that would make her preferred choice mandatory.

"I would say every other car I pass has someone using a cellphone," says Main. "I have had lots of narrow misses at intersections because of some other driver looking down while using a hand-held version."

Hazards by the book and from the user

Two dozen major studies over the past 20 years confirm her observation. The New England Journal of Medicine says drivers using cellphones are four times as likely to be in an accident as those who aren't. A 2002 Harvard University study estimates that that nationwide, cellphone distraction leads to 1.5 million accidents, 330,000 injuries, and 2,600 deaths each year.

Because of such evidence, more than 20 countries have adopted laws restricting cellphone use while driving. The California version would include fines similar to those for safety-belt law violations - $20 for the first offense, $50 for subsequent violations. Although "hands-free" models are not covered by the law, many observers worry that some problems would remain, because most models still require users to look down to dial.

"I would absolutely welcome such a law," says Bob Helfant, a computer networker who uses most of his 1,500 minutes per month on his hand-held phone. He is searching for a new model with an earpiece, speakerphone, and voice-activated dialing. "Even though I have relied on [my hand-held model] it's unsafe. They should even fine you more than that."

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