Melbourne council denies ban of cellphone use among motorists
[Melbourne, FL]

May 10, 2001
By Brad Buck
Melbourne City Councilman Richard Contreras enjoys his cellular phone as much as the next person. But he knows it can distract him while he's driving. Contreras wants Melbourne to adopt an ordinance that would control or prevent people from using cellphones when they drive in the city in order to prevent vehicle accidents.

But his colleagues on the city council declined to take up his proposal Tuesday. Nice idea, but unenforceable, they said.

Regardless, the Melbourne council's disagreement on cellphone rules mirrors a growing national debate over the gadgets. Experts and activists testified before a Congressional subcommittee Wednesday, with some calling the phones a hazard and others presenting statistics that downplay the threat. In particular, Contreras wants to prevent city workers from potential liability if they get into accidents while using cellphones in city vehicles.

"I don't want to sit and wait and have it be an emotional issue" after a traffic accident, he said. The aggrieved party could sue the city, Contreras said.

City Attorney Paul Gougelman agreed, but said the State Legislature is the only body that can regulate what people can do in their cars.

Vice Mayor Cheryl Palmer said the city should not legislate against cellphone use.

"We all agree it's dangerous," she said. "But it's also dangerous to talk to someone in the back seat or drink a Coke or put on your makeup."

If people are driving on a road in the city and then get outside the city, the law would not be in effect, Councilman Ed Palmer said. "It doesn't make sense. It's a lost cause."

The issue doesn't sit well with cellphone dealers, either. They're quick to point out why drivers can use cellphones and drive simultaneously.

Vicki Yates, manager of Lightning Communications Inc., a cell phone firm in Merritt Island, says drivers have good enough judgment to not use cellphones in dangerous situations.

"My question is that if he's going to call judgment on my livelihood, why doesn't he look at drinking cups of coffee, people doing their hair, smoking. There's a multitude of sin," Yates said. "I can talk and drive at the same time. I think I would have some common sense, I would tell the person it's not a good time to call. It's like saying we have no common sense."

Chapter 316 of Florida Statutes outlines motor vehicle operating laws throughout the state. Cities are not allowed to supercede those laws, Gougelman said. That means state law prevents cities or counties from enacting local ordinances on such things as cellphone use.

"No one can operate a vehicle while wearing a headset, headphone or other listening device, other than a hearing aid or instrument for the improvement of defective human hearing," the Florida Statutes say.

But the section does not apply to "any person using a headset in conjunction with a cellular telephone that only provides sound through one ear and allows surrounding sounds to be heard with the other ear."

Ohio example
Contreras based his recommendation on a law in Brooklyn, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, where it is illegal to use a mobile telephone while driving a motor vehicle.

In that city, motorists cannot use a mobile phone while operating a motor vehicle unless both hands are on the steering wheel. It does allow phones that have headsets.

Several states have tried to ban cellphone use while driving. In New York City, cab drivers are not allowed to use cellphones while driving. Some countries, including Australia, Great Britain and Spain, have outlawed talking on wireless phones while driving.

A 1997 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates drivers are four times more likely to have auto accidents while using cellphones. The study also revealed that the risk was the same when drivers used "hands-free" phones, which have headsets.

Congress got an earful on Wednesday about the dangers posed by drivers who chat on cellphones when they should be watching for red lights, sharp curves and stop signs. Several groups testified before a House Transportation subcommittee on what many safety experts consider a new national nightmare.

But not everyone agrees on the severity of the problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drivers' inattention causes 20 percent to 30 percent of accidents in the United states - about 1.6 million of the 6.3 million crashes last year - or about 4,300 accidents a day.

But a national survey released Tuesday by AAA showed distracted drivers who crash are more likely to have been changing a CD, eating a burger or quieting a toddler than by using their cell phones.

In fact, cellphones were low on the list of distractions for drivers involved in 5,000 accidents between 1995 and 1999, according to the AAA study, done by the University of North .

But those who still believe the phones create a hazard - including the study's author - cautioned that the data many not be dependable because many drivers won't admit they were talking on a telephone at the time of a crash.

Many Florida Highway Patrol troopers say distracted drivers are a significant cause of crashes. They eat in their cars, talk on cell phones, listen to music, and adjust seats and mirrors.

At high speeds, one tiny mistake, a slight jerk of the steering wheel, can lead to disaster.

Tracking troubles
In January, the FHP started including "driver distractions" on its traffic accident reports. If a trooper checks the distractions box, he or she must explain in the narrative what the distraction was and how it contributed to the accident, Maj. Ken Howes said.

The patrol has not yet compiled numbers showing how many crashes have involved distractions, including cell phones.

Meanwhile, because of questions from the public, the FHP has produced a public service announcement for television promoting "safe and responsible cellphone use while driving."

Advice includes avoiding cellphone use in heavy traffic, Howes said.

"The best piece of advice is to get a headset, to keep both hands on the wheel," Howes said. "If you have one hand on the cellphone and your other hand is steering the car, that's not safe and responsible."
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