Curb on Driving and Dialing Careens Into N.Y. Legislature

Highway-safety initiative would force car-phone users to pull over

New York state lawmakers are mulling a bill to curb the use of car phones, a response to new evidence that dialing and driving can be dangerous.

Other states are also considering actions that would curtail the use of cell phones in moving vehicles, but such efforts are hampered by the phones' popularity - 45 million Americans now own them. Moreover, their reputation as a safety hazard is counterbalanced by their status as a useful safety tool.

"Any distractive behavior in a vehicle, whether it's using a cell phone carelessly or applying makeup, is dangerous," says Glenn Valle, chief counsel for the New York State Police. "But car phones are a fact of life in today's society, and they serve a very significant need."

The New York bill follows failed attempts to curb car-phone use in Nebraska and Florida and coincides with bills in California and Illinois, both of which call for use to be restricted to hands-free speaker phones.

The measure here, sponsored by Sen. Leonard P. Stavisky (D), would require drivers to pull over after 60 seconds to complete a call, whether it be on a speaker or hand-held phone. Violating the law would cost a driver up to $50 on a first offense, with fines rising to $100 and $200 with subsequent violations. Exceptions could be made in emergencies.

Senator Stavisky and California state Sen. John Burton (D) proposed car-phone restrictions after reviewing a 14-month study that showed drivers using car phones were four times more likely to have an accident than motorists who did not use phones. Their accident rate is about the same as for people who qualify as legally drunk in California (0.08 percent blood-alcohol level). "It's as dangerous as driving drunk," says Mr. Burton.

"We're dealing a matter of life and death," says Stavisky. "The mere fact that police officers would be pulling drivers over would contribute to lessening accidents and deaths."

BUT the study, published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, and similar research aren't likely to change anything, some say. Drivers of cars with cell phones are unlikely to face higher insurance premiums, says Steve Goldstein of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute. "The very fact that you have a car phone doesn't mean you're using it when your car is moving," he says.

Tim Aires, a spokesman for the Cellular Telephone Industry Association in Washington, doesn't expect the New York bill to go far. "Almost every year these bills come up," he says. "Usually reason wins out. The issue is a matter of distraction, and if that's the case they're going to have to ban kids in the back seat and complicated radios."

Even the police raise questions about Stavisky's bill. "We recognize the intent of the bill," says Mr. Valle. "People pulling over to take these calls, making quick, erratic lane changes, or parking on the shoulder - [the bill] may create ... hazards that outweigh the hazards it's trying to address."

Cell phones have also proved to be an invaluable safety device, with more than 50,000 wireless 911 calls made everyday. The cell-phone industry has actively promoted its contribution to road safety, inviting the chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to speak at its annual conference this month.

Most traffic-safety groups, from the AAA to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, have taken no stance on the bills.

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