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Nation in brief

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 2, 2002

Cell phones may lead to more road deaths

WASHINGTON -- The death toll from crashes caused by drivers talking on wireless phones appears to be rising significantly as the devices become a must-have accessory for many Americans.

A study being released today by Harvard University's Center for Risk Analysis estimates a rate of 2,600 deaths a year in such crashes, compared with the same researchers' estimate of 1,000 deaths two years ago.

"The amount of time people spend using their cell phones while driving has increased, probably reflecting the fact that it is becoming cheaper to use the devices," said research scientist Joshua Cohen, the study's author.

The Harvard study estimated 570,000 injuries a year and 1.5-million crashes resulting in property damage can be blamed on wireless phone use.

The study will feed into a national debate that pits personal freedom and convenience against safety concerns.

Two federal agencies have recently stepped up efforts to understand how wireless phone use might contribute to accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating wireless phones as a potential contributing factor in several recent serious crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is launching a study of how wireless phone use affects drivers, using the government's driving simulator facility in Iowa.

Nationwide, there is no uniform measure for tracking accidents in which wireless phone use might have been a factor. The Harvard study used mathematical models to estimate the risk of injury and death and costs and benefits of using wireless phones while driving. The risk analysis center is part of Harvard's School of Public Health. The study concluded the escalating costs of wireless phone-related accidents are erasing the economic benefits of unrestricted use of the devices by drivers.

Cohen's latest calculations found that the costs are roughly equal to the benefits.

"The risk is growing, but the benefits are not keeping up," Cohen said. Such conclusions could bolster the case for restricting wireless phone use by drivers.

This year, at least 22 states considered legislation to restrict wireless phone use while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only New York has enacted a partial ban -- drivers can not use hand-held phones. New Yorkers may use hands-free devices, which are usually voice-activated and come with an earpiece and microphone.

Also . . .

HAWAII ELECTION: Democrat Ed Case, who lost in his party's primary for governor, won the free-for-all election to fill the remaining five weeks of the term of the late Congresswoman Patsy Mink, officials said Sunday.

He got 51 percent of the votes cast Saturday for 38 candidates in the 2nd District, which includes rural Oahu and the neighbor islands.

Case most likely will never cast a vote on the House floor and may not be sworn in, since Congress is not in session.

Mink's widower, John Mink, was second with 16,624 votes, or 36 percent. Only 13 percent of registered voters turned out for the election.

Case also is a candidate in the Jan. 4 special election to determine who will serve the two-year term which Mink posthumously won in the Nov. 5 general election.

MANSION BURNS: Authorities were investigating a fire early Sunday at a three-story mansion recently sold by indicted former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow.

Houston Fire Department spokesman Jay Evans said the fire was contained in the front portion of the house, which federal prosecutors have accused Fastow of building with laundered money.

"It is under investigation," Evans said of the fire. "That is all we are going to say about it at this time."

The house was sold to another energy company official for $3.9-million in October. About $300,000 of work remained on the house, and it wasn't clear whether the new owner, Thomas Hook of Hilcorp Energy, had moved in.

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