A nationwide movement to ban cell phone use while driving hit California on Monday when a freshman state assemblyman pushed legislation to require the use of hands-off technology.
Strong opposition from such cellular phone providers as Sprint, AT&T and Cingular wireless divisions kept the California Wireless Telephone Safety Act bottled up in the Assembly Transportation Committee, which voted 9-3 in favor, one vote short of passage.
The bill by Assemblyman S. Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would require that drivers use hands-free cell phone devices starting in 2005. Drivers caught with a hand-held phone to their ear would be ticketed.
"I was gratified," Simitian said Monday night after the decision. "I got nine votes on a bipartisan basis. I need to find one more vote sometime in the next week or two.
"I'm a freshman: I learned today what it's like to go up against the big guns in the cellular industry. I'll be back."
The bill, which exempts hand-held calls for emergency use, joins pending legislation in 38 states to restrict cell phones on public roads. It's the first attempt in the state to regulate cell phone use on the roads since 1997 when a similar measure failed.
By passing the measure, California would follow Europe's lead in becoming the first state in the nation to limit cell phone use.
"Holding a phone for the duration of a 15-minute conversation while driving is downright dangerous," Simitian said. "Technology is meant to enhance, not endanger, our lives."
That doesn't bode well for cell companies that claim their gadgets have been singled out among countless car seat distractions from radios to CDs to dogs as a threat to public health.
Nor does it suit Los Angeles freeway drivers used to decades of multitasking who prefer not being separated from their beloved hand-held chatterboxes.
"A lot of people are against it," said Jeannine Sharaga, 39, a Realtor with Carnahan & Associates in Woodland Hills. Each day she joins an office of agents who bend elbows to their ears while making sales calls around the San Fernando Valley.
Despite a headset purchased by her husband, Sharaga generally relies on her convenient hand-held for roadway conversation.
"It's part of the job, it's part of real estate, you need them for everyday appointments, for pricing -- I know it's not safe, but I do it," she said.
According to Verizon, more than 4.4 millions Californians owned cellular phones as of January 2001 -- of those, 2.8 million are used in Southern California.
The California Highway Patrol and the Automobile Association of America have both recommended that drivers either use hands-free devices -- which cost as little as $7.50 -- to make calls or pull over to the side of the road.
The Assembly Transportation Committee passed another bill Monday that would require police and CHP officers to note in crash reports whether cell phones or other such devices were present. Only four other states require such long-term tracking.
For years, wireless industry proponents supported education over legislation as a means of public safety.
But Verizon Wireless, the nation's top seller of cellular phones, broke away from its industry counterparts to support Simitian's bill and others like it.
"We know that education alone does not address responsible driving," said Verizon Wireless spokesman Andrew Colley. "There must also be a reasonable and rational statewide law to assist the effort."
While no one disputes that hand-held phones can distract drivers, studies differ as to how much.
A 1997 New England Journal of Medicine study concluded, based on limited case studies, that mixing cars and cell phones quadrupled the risk of car crashes.
The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration warned drivers the same year about the potential dangers of yakking while navigating. Last July, the NTSB warned drivers not to chat and drive.
An NTSB researcher told the Daily News last year that cellular distractions killed 1,000 drivers a year.
A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, on the other hand, found early this year that cell phone use on North Carolina highways caused 1.5 percent of near-misses or collisions -- versus 18.8 percent for eating and drinking and 11.4 percent for plugging in a CD or tuning the radio.
New cell phone laws simply go too far in attempting to dissuade drivers from roadway distraction, many cell phone industry representatives say.
"The bottom line is, at what point do you tell people, 'You can't drink coffee in your car, you can't talk to your spouse, you can't plug in your CD, you can't touch your kids,' " said AT&T Wireless spokesman Steve Crosby. "At what point do you draw the line?
"There are many distractions in the car: This bill is really creating an hysteria."
Stephanie Walsh, spokeswoman for Sprint PCS, agreed.
"We recommend a hands-free device - safe driving is a very pressing issue in the mobile arena," she said.
"We eat hamburgers, we apply mascara, we talk to the kids, we light cigarettes, we read maps, we do lots of things. The prudent response is not to ban these activities, but enforce laws (already) on the books."
(c) 2001, Daily News, Los Angeles. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.
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