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CELL COMPANY BACKS USE BAN WHILE DRIVING

Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. cellular telephone provider, said it broke with the industry Monday and agreed to support laws that would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving, a practice blamed for deadly accidents.

Verizon Wireless's apparent change of heart came as a committee of Chicago aldermen postponed a vote on a proposal to make the city the biggest U.S. municipality yet to make it illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving.

Verizon spokeswoman Annette Jacobs said Verizon, which has more than 25 million wireless customers, would lobby for passage of a statewide ban on anything but "hands-free" cellular use by drivers. The company suggested phasing in the law over three years to allow the market to modernize and make hands-free devices less expensive.

Verizon Wireless is wholly owned by Verizon Communications.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that cellular telephone use by drivers contributed to 57 fatal crashes in 1997, the latest data available.

At least one study compared the danger posed by driving while talking on a cell phone to driving while drunk.

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