States Looking at Automobile-Cellular Telephone Issue

 

Gentlemen and women, start your engines. A state race may be on to determine the future of the automobile and the cellular telephone. Legislation to either ban or limit motorists use of cell phones while they drive is popping up in statehouses around the country. At the same time, highway officials and wireless researchers are exploring the use of cell phone technology to reinvent traffic information processes and the development of the nations highways.

Two eastern Pennsylvania towns -- Hilltown and Conshohocken -- recently curbed cell phone use in moving vehicles, becoming only the second and third locations in the nation where motorists accustomed to using their phones in transit will now need to be wary. No states have yet outlawed driving-while-chatting and opponents have already questioned whether the local ordinances could survive a state court challenge.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which tracks the proposed restrictions, 20 states have bills that would restrict cellphone use by motorists pending: Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington.

Three states currently place minor restrictions on cell phones for drivers.

California mandates safe-use instructions in rental cars equipped with telephones, Florida requires drivers to be able to hear outside sound with at least one ear, and Massachusetts obliges drivers to keep one hand on the wheel when using a phone.

Meanwhile, Maryland and Virginia have each teamed with U.S. Wireless Corp. to test an unprecedented system that would enable highway authorities to measure the speed of traffic by tracking the forward progress of cell phone users while they drive.

The system uses wireless location technology originally developed to enable 911 operators to pinpoint the position of a caller. Signals emitted by the moving phones would transmit to cellular towers, which would then calculate the overall traffic speed by the length of the call and the distance traveled. Eventually, officials hope, system monitors could predict backups before they happen and inform motorists in time for them to select another route.

The year-long studies will test the system on portions of the U.S. Capital Beltway, widely regarded as one of the nation's most congested arteries, and on highways in Virginia's Hampton Roads.

State officials hope that they'll be able to determine the system's reliability by this summer. Industry leaders say that, if successful, these "radio cameras" could sidestep the privacy concerns raised by visual cameras and offer more affordable and durable methods than magnetic road sensors for anticipating traffic problems.

"The old systems are really counting cars. We are looking at the speed of traffic," said Dr. Oliver Hilsenrath, CEO of the San Ramon, California-based U.S. Wireless. "It's really the most meaningful information for me, the traveller."

"We're bringing a more elegant solution to an industry that has its solutions and its budgets," Hilsenrath said.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) records more than 84 million cell phone subscriptions in the United States. Several hundred thousand of these belong to commuters in Maryland and Virginia, only a tiny fraction of which would have to be in use for a system to offer reliable data, Hilsenrath said.

A state level ban or restriction on commuters' phones could create a problem.

This is not currently an issue in Virginia. But a Maryland hearing scheduled for early February will review HB 43, which would subject mobile talkers using hand-held phones to fines up to $500.

The bill's sponsor, Del. John S. Arnick (D), indicated that his motivations were the same as those of other lawmakers who have proposed restrictions in other states.

"Many of my constituents complain about accidents, near accidents ... people using phones cutting them off [and] weaving on the road," he said.

Arnick said that he was not aware of the Maryland State Highway Administration's collaboration with U.S. Wireless, but said he saw no conflict between his proposal and the project. His bill would permit drivers to use hands-free phones.

"It doesn't have to [create a conflict], but it could if the legislation is too broadly written," said Dave Snyder an assistant general counsel for highway safety with the American Insurance Association (AIA).

But a legal restriction on cell phones is not the answer, says Hilsenrath. "Besides being a wireless company, we are citizens ... and fathers of children. We are as concerned [about] safety on highways as everyone else." Instead of new laws, Hilsenrath wants manufacturers to work together to make mobile communication distraction-free.

"In my perspective, a call from a car should be equivalent with a conversation with a passenger seated side-by-side with you, which I'm assuming is not going to be banned soon," he said.

Lawmakers typically have little expectation that their proposals will become law this time around. In Colorado, the House Transportation and Energy Committee delivered the first death blow, voting 10-1 to kill a measure that would have punished driving dialers with a fine and added points to a driver's license if they were on the telephone at the time of an accident. Observers of a similar Iowa bill have called it a "long shot."

Still, "it's gaining momentum every year," Arnick said of his bill in Maryland.

Matt Sundeen, a transportation policy analyst at NCSL, echoed the doubts but did not rule out the possibility that a state could act against cell phones this year.

"Pennsylvania is a strong candidate because there was the accident involving a two-year old girl who was killed by a driver who was allegedly using a cell phone while driving," Sundeen said. "I think that's where you're going to see ... the strongest call to action."

Three bills currently sit in committee in the Pennsylvania Legislature. An aide to Sen. Joe Conti (R), whose bill would outlaw hand-held cell phones on Pennsylvania roads for all drivers except police and emergency personnel, said that chances of passage in the Senate were high, while the House was uncertain. An alternative bill in the House would prohibit use of all cell phones, hand-held or hands-free, outright.

Local action "underscores the need for a uniform state law instead of various municipal ordinances," said Conti's chief of staff, Chad Davis.

Penalties range from the trivial to the potentially devastating. In Brooklyn, Ohio, the first municipality to issue a cell phone restriction for drivers, first-time offenders receive a $3 ticket and perhaps a quick reprimand at the officer's discretion. The Iowa measure, which would require drivers to hang up in less than sixty seconds 911 calls excluded stipulates fines up to $100 and potential jail time.

The proposed restrictions have raised the ire of insurance salesmen, real estate agents, and contractors people whose business keeps them constantly on the road who say that their ability to do business would be curtailed. They argue that cell phones are just one of many distractions that drivers face; a fair cell phone ban would have to be followed by similar steps against everything from CD players to annoying passengers.

The groundswell of pro-ban calls to lawmakers and the resolute opposition the bills have faced in committee have forced the cellular industry, insurance analysts and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), all of whom say that driving is job one, into a cautious middle ground.

Calls from good samaritans and motorists in distress reduce emergency response times and boost safety figures, according to a 1998 NHTSA report. But the study also concluded that carelessly used "cellular phones ... create distractions that increase a driver's risk on the highways."

CTIA literature states that 911 operators receive 98,000 calls from wireless phones every day, although it does not say how many of these are placed from moving vehicles.

Add the possible benefits of smarter highway technology and comprehensive cell phone bans seem even costlier. Insurance providers support projects like the U.S. Wireless initiative that have the potential to dramatically improve the design and implementation of safer and more efficient transportation systems, the AIA's Snyder said.

"On the other hand, there is no question that the public is widely misusing these things under traffic conditions where they really shouldn't be used, especially the hands-on technology," he said. "We look at legislation as a last resort."

Snyder said that cell phones at present have no effect on automobile insurance rates.

Whether or not restrictions will pass at the state level this year remains to be seen. But proponents say that safe-use education is not working and remain confident that public safety will eventually demand protective laws.

"Its day will come," said Arnick.

 
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