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    Cellular phones drive debate

    Nationwide, drivers and lawmakers are arguing whether safety concerns outweigh the phones' convenience.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001


    Laura Peel couldn't believe her eyes. The car beside her on the Gandy Bridge was drifting deep into Peel's lane as its driver chattered on his cell phone at 60 mph, completely oblivious to Peel's state of alarm.

    There ought to be a law, the St. Petersburg nurse thought as she hit her horn and her brakes.

    The state of New York agrees. It just became the first state to ban drivers from talking on handheld cell phones.

    Just don't hold your breath waiting for Florida to do the same. The idea died a quiet death in the Florida Legislature this year, and the state's political leaders are reluctant to impose more safety requirements on drivers.

    Still, the backlash against cell phones is growing. Forty states have considered doing what New York is doing.

    The cell phone industry feels picked on. It points to studies saying cell phones are no more distracting to drivers than changing the radio station, talking to a child or eating a cheeseburger.

    About 117-million Americans -- about 40 percent of us -- have cell phones now. For people on the go, it's hard to beat the convenience of a phone in the car.

    "My car is my office. Realtors who sit in the office don't make money," said St. Petersburg real estate agent Nancy Riley, who has had a cell phone for a decade.

    "As careful as I try to be, the truth is it's got to be distracting, just like a child in the back seat. But we don't ban children in the back seat, do we?"

    Do cell phones cause car wrecks?

    Two months ago, a 26-year-old Clearwater carpenter named Paul Martin was driving across the Howard Frankland Bridge when his Motorola phone rang. As he leaned over to grab it off the floorboard, his Ford Explorer swerved into the emergency lane and killed Richard McKeefery, a 23-year-old Applebee's waiter who was changing a tire.

    "I'm so sorry about his family," a sobbing Martin said afterward. "I'll never talk on my phone again while I'm driving."

    Despite the mounting horror stories, there's little statistical evidence linking cell phones to crashes.

    A 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that talking on a cell phone quadrupled a driver's chances of crashing. It also said the phone conversation itself was more distracting than dialing or holding the phone.

    Other studies dispute both of those points.

    A study sponsored by AAA found that drivers were distracted in about 5,000 out of 32,300 accidents. More than half the time, the driver was looking at something outside the car or fiddling with the stereo or talking to someone else in the car. Drivers in only 42 crashes -- 1.5 percent of them -- blamed their cell phones.

    But even the study's author said those numbers might be unreliable because drivers won't admit they were on the phone.

    Police in Florida are having the same problem.

    "First, you have to get them to actually admit that," said St. Petersburg police Officer Mike Preshur, who investigates fatal crashes.

    Beginning this year, when Florida police officers fill out accident reports, they note whether drivers were distracted and what distracted them.

    Cell phones were blamed in 73 out of 52,500 Florida accidents from January through March, or only 0.1 percent. But that number is inaccurate because the new accident forms weren't being used everywhere in Florida that entire time. Also, officers are still getting used to the new forms.

    "These are very preliminary data," said Robert Sanchez, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "I think it's very early in the game."

    Mark Burris, a researcher at the University of South Florida in Tampa, compared every study available and found a wide range of results. One Japanese study came to this conclusion:

    "The most dangerous time was when a call was coming in and a person was attempting to answer the phone," Burris said. "You may have to hunt for your phone, and you have no control over when that call is coming."

    In New York, Republican lawmakers questioned whether phones were any more distracting to drivers than drinking coffee. They argued that a ban would be hard to enforce and more study was needed.

    But New York's governor signed a bill Thursday that bans drivers from using handheld phones, while permitting them to use headsets or speakerphones.

    A similar bill was introduced in the Florida Legislature this year. It got nowhere.

    "There is a personal-liberty issue," said House Speaker Tom Feeney, who uses a phone when he drives. "This is an invitation for police to invade your automobile, and the next thing you know, they are going to be rummaging through your stuff."

    Florida lawmakers tend to have a "live and let live" philosophy when it comes to motorists and safety regulations.

    Just last year, Florida got rid of its motorcycle helmet law. Two weeks ago, Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a bill that would have forced older children to ride in car booster seats.

    It took years for Florida to mandate seat belts for drivers and bicycle helmets for children. Florida still lets children ride in the backs of pickups.

    The governor has taken no stance on cell phones behind the wheel.

    Some people support a ban. "Pull off the road to someplace where you can concentrate," said Pinellas substitute teacher Harold Zallis.

    But wireless phones have become a way of life for many Floridians.

    "I literally live on the cell phone," said Clearwater real estate agent Duke Tieman, who works for a small office and is always on the road. He doesn't see how he could function if the government ordered him to put away his phone. "It would just eliminate me. It would absolutely wipe me out."

    Wireless phone companies are fighting cell phone bans, saying education campaigns would be more effective. They point out that police can already pull over anyone who's driving recklessly.

    The industry is also pushing the use of "hands-free" phone systems for cars.

    Phone headsets cost from about $10-$50. Speakerphones that attach to sun visors cost $40-$70. A hands-free system, with a speakerphone hard-wired into your car, offers better reception and typically costs $150-$250.

    Safety advocates question whether hands-free systems are really safer.

    "It's the mental distraction of driving while talking that's dangerous," said AAA spokeswoman Diane Jones.

    Citrus County attorney Daniel J. Snow bought himself a hands-free system, but he still needed to look down to push a button to end a call. That's what he was doing April 5 when he rammed into the back of a van in Inverness.

    The bone in Snow's right thigh snapped in two places, his left wrist was broken and his view of cell phones changed forever.

    "I loved the convenience," Snow said. "But now that convenience is just not worth it to me. I could have killed somebody."

    - Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report, which contains information from Times wires.

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