News

Another call for less cell phoning while driving

By PAT JENKINS

The Mirror

A state legislator from Federal Way and at least one cell phone provider

agree that it’s safer if people don’t use hand-held cells while driving a car, but they disagree on what do about it.

Sen. Tracey Eide is trying again to pass a law against driving and using a cell phone at the same time. Nextel Communications prefers changing people’s in-car phone habits through gentle persuasion instead of the threat of legal trouble.

Despite her claims that some cell users drive as erratically as drunk drivers and are theoretically just as dangerous, Eide (D-30th District) has failed in past years to get the Legislature to ban having hands on telephones instead of the wheel in all but a few special situations.

“I don’t want to outlaw them, I just want to make them hands-free so people can operate their vehicles safely,” she said. “People don’t always think about driving when they’re talking on the phone. It can be a very scary thing for other drivers and pedestrians.”

She noted the New England Journal of Medicine once reported a study found the risk of traffic accidents for people who drive while phoning is about the same as driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level, the legal limit in Washington.

In the 2005 legislative session that opened last month, Eide is sponsoring two bills on the issue. They received a hearing Jan. 18 before the Senate Transportation Committee, which took no action on them. Unless the committee sends them on for further debate by the full Legislature, they’ll go back on hold.

Senate Bill 5160 would make it a secondary offense to drive while using a hand-held cell phone, unless the person is operating an emergency vehicle or reporting an emergency or crime.

The companion Senate Bill 5161 would require the State Patrol to include in traffic accident reports whether drivers were using a “wireless device.” Related information would be included in the agency’s annual and monthly reports.

Two states –– New York in 2001 and New Jersey last July –– have banned drivers from using hand-held phones. So have Washington, D.C., 24 other cities nationally and the Fort Campbell Army base in Kentucky. Also,

several major companies, including General Motors, have slapped similar rules on their employees, according to Eide.

Nextel Communications, one of three cell phone companies (joining Sprint and Cingular Wireless) whose representatives testified at last month’s Senate hearing, wants people to refrain from using hand-held phones while driving, said spokeswoman Mary Beth Lowell. Ideally, cell customers should let incoming calls go to a message or pull over and stop before taking or making a call, she said.

To help make that a common practice, Nextel and KING-TV (channel 5) in

Seattle are paying for public-service commercials that will urge drivers to

eliminate distractions, including cell phones. Those and spots with other safe-driving advice are being produced in conjunction with the State Patrol and were in final editing last week, said trooper Lance Ramsay, a coordinator for them.

Ramsay said a separate public-education campaign targeting high school students will encourage the use of speakers or headsets for in-car cell phoning.

“The most important thing to change people’s habits with cell phone use in

cars is education, not legislation,” Lowell said.

While the cell phone industry concedes that its hand-held products can be a

potentially dangerous distraction on the road, they aren’t the worst. Citing a study in 2001 that was conducted by University of North Carolina researchers and paid for by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) notes that adjusting radios or music players, eating, personal grooming and passengers, among others, rank higher on a list of distractions reported nationally as factors in traffic accidents.

Ramsay said that in his 13 years as a state trooper, only one accident he has investigated involved a motorist talking on a cell phone when the crash occurred.

In another study last year, according to CTIA, headset manufacturer Plantronics reported that tests of 24 cell phone users in a driving simulator showed faster reactions to traffic situations and better steering when using headsets.

Ramsay also said Nextel “has been outstanding” in trying to promote driver safety.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565, editor@fedwaymirror.com

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