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Tough Talk Wanes on Phone Use in Cars

Large Truck Accidents | Featured Articles

November 01 2001 - Tough Talk Wanes on Phone Use in Cars

NEW YORK—New York today becomes the first state in the nation to ban using a handheld cellphone while driving.

But as the historic law goes into effect, attitudes have shifted since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, as mobile phones are seen less as a dangerous distraction and more as a lifeline to loved ones in a crisis.

Some school systems that once associated cellphones with drug dealing and banned them from campuses have changed or are reviewing their policies.

And while a handful of legislators in other states are prepared to introduce bills next year, some observers say the recent clamor for laws restricting the use of cellphones on the road may ebb because of the September tragedy.

‘‘Two months ago, I would have told you for sure it’s going to be a hot legislative issue next year,’’ says Matt Sundeen, senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. ‘‘Now I’m not so sure. . . . Some of the backlash that was pushing the legislation has diminished a little bit.’‘

New York officials will press ahead with the law, passed in June, by issuing verbal warnings to motorists caught talking on a handheld cellphone starting today. On Dec.1, police will start issuing citations, but courts can waive the $100 fine for first-time offenders if drivers can prove they bought a hands-free telephone or device.

After March 1, there will be no more waivers, and the state’s approximately 10.5 million licensed drivers will have to use headsets, earbuds or speakerphones or risk being pulled over. The law does allow motorists to use a handheld phone during an emergency.

This year, 43 states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, considered restrictions on the use of cellphones while driving. California, Arizona and Massachusetts have adopted minor restrictions, and at least 14 local jurisdictions have passed laws limiting or penalizing the use of cellphones while driving.

Even so, attitudes toward cellphones seem to have softened, some experts say.

Some studies show there is a greater chance for an accident when the driver is using a mobile phone. But some legislators and advocates for the cellphone industry say there is no proof that using a cellphone is more hazardous than other driving distractions, such as drinking coffee or talking to children in the backseat.

Even before the terrorist attacks, cellphones had become such a fixture in American life that some parents were asking school officials to allow the phones on campus to keep in touch with their children.

And after Sept. 11, when hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania, cellphones seemed more necessary than ever, as stories abounded of children using them to contact their parents and of victims calling loved ones one last time.

‘‘Cellphones are the only distraction that has a safety benefit,’’ says Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the National Association of Governors’ Highway Safety Representatives. ‘‘We certainly saw the safety benefits of using a cellphone on Sept. 11.’’ The morning of the attacks, some students in Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington had carried cellphones to school despite a rule barring them. After the tragedy, when many land lines were busy, students were able to use their cellphones to contact their parents.

‘‘We’re looking at it in a different way now,’’ says Paul Regnier of Fairfax County Public Schools. He says officials are now reviewing the ban.

Other school districts say they were already considering such changes.

In October, after a Maryland law barring cellphones and pagers in schools was repealed, the Montgomery County school system decided to allow them, says Reginald Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association and a member of the Montgomery County School Board.

‘‘I think there was a shift in public opinion about the use of electronic devices anyway,’’ Felton says, but ‘‘certainly the Sept. 11 incident probably created even stronger community support for the change.’‘

The Little Rock School District decided last month to allow cellphones at after-school activities because of recent bomb threats and requests from parents who wanted their children to reach them in an emergency.

The terrorist attacks may also affect cellphone use in other ways. Lawmakers are now forced to concentrate on dealing with such issues as homeland security, officials say. Similarly, some fear that enforcement might suffer when officers are focusing on preventing terrorist attacks.

‘‘I haven’t heard much from law enforcement about enforcing that law,’’ says Adkins of the highway safety organization. ‘‘I think it was well-intentioned, but I don’t think you’re going to see a bunch of people arrested for using their cellphones in New York. . . . Law enforcement is going to be focused on other areas.’‘

But New York officials disagree. ‘‘We fully intend to enforce the law,’’ state police Capt. David Salmon says. ‘‘It’s just an additional law within the vehicle and traffic law that we’ll enforce as part of our overall traffic and safety plan.’‘

In the meantime, Cellport Systems, a company based in Boulder, Colo., that sells hands-free equipment, has seen sales double in the New York area in the past month, says Pat Kennedy, the firm’s CEO. And when talk of such a ban escalated last year, Verizon Wireless saw an 84% increase in the sale of hands-free accessories in New York and New Jersey over the year before, spokesman Howard Waterman says.

‘‘I honestly feel it’s a good idea to ban them,’’ says Himanshu Patel, 25, a financial consultant from Edison, N.J., who commutes to Manhattan by car. ‘‘I see cars swerving into my lane while the drivers are talking, and it’s a real hazard. If spending the extra $20 on a hands-free set saves some lives, then I’m all for it.’’

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