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New York's pending law against holding a cell phone and a steering wheel at the same time will set off a scramble by millions of drivers to make their phones "hands-free," cellular companies predict.

But while inexpensive add-ons like headphones can turn handsets into hands-free devices, they don't work with many older phones. That means those customers will face a costly upgrade to a new phone or an adapter if they want to talk on their phone and drive.

"My phone is a basic handset. It doesn't even have a (headphone) jack," Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Jill Lyon said. "I'm going to need an all new phone to comply with the law."

Or she could just pull over -- but no one's predicting that motorists are about to give up their highway talking habits.

About 85 percent of cell phone owners use them at least occasionally while driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. New York has about six million cellular subscribers, 40 percent of whom lack a newer phone that can easily accommodate a headset, Verizon estimates.

New York will become the first state to outlaw handling a cell phone while driving under a measure that the Assembly approved on Monday with
Gov. George E. Pataki's backing. The Senate passed a similar bill last week. Once signed, the law would go into effect Nov. 1 and police would start handing out tickets of $100 per infraction a month later. The fines would be waived for first-time violators who show they have purchased a hands-free device after receiving a ticket.

The law permits cell phone use as long as drivers don't hold the phone to their ear, meaning compliance can be bought with a set of headphones, two-way speakers or tiny earphones called ear "buds." The devices range in price from $10 for a small earpiece to nearly $200 for a professionally installed two-way speaker system. Some studies question whether hands-free phones are safer than regular ones. Other studies wonder if cell phones are even any more hazardous than talking to a passenger in the car. But cellular providers, taking the stance of safety first, stood by without opposition.

"We're delighted we've been taking measures to move toward this hands-free technology," said Bill Wind, area general manager for Sprint PCS. Like other providers, Sprint sells hands-free devices and voice-recognition dialing services that enable users to dial without touching the phone.

Police who see the consequences of distracted driving were enthusiastic about making hands-free calling the rule.

"We've had drivers in accidents where their main concern should be on the roadway, and instead they're concentrating on their conversation," Buffalo Police Investigator Paul Sullivan said.

Erie County Sheriffs Deputy Thomas Dougherty wished it would be easier to enforce the law, particularly at night when it's difficult to see inside the car. "Our problem is going to be proving it," he said.

Even cell phone users outside a Cingular Wireless store in Cheektowaga applauded the hands-free requirement, mirroring widespread support for the measure.

"I use it occasionally (while driving) -- I don't like it though," Cheri Yager of Cheektowaga said of her cell phone. She said she planned to get a hands-free attachment anyway.

Jim Farris, a salesman from Buffalo, said he knows of the distractions a conversation can cause.

"I tend to pull over (making a call), because I'm not that coordinated," he said. "When you start to drive and talk and think, it gets complicated."

By now, it's second nature for most drivers to use extra caution around a motorist who is steering with one hand and clutching a phone with the other.

But studies disagree about the level of risk involved in driving while talking -- and whether simply eliminating hand-held phones reduces the risk.

A recent study by the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety put cell phones far down the list as a source of distracted-driving accidents. In a study of 32,000 collisions from 1995 to 1999, accidents linked to cell phones were less frequent than those involving the radio or CD player, eating or drinking, or paying attention to a passenger or something outside the car.

"People argue that if you ban cell phone (use) you've got to ban eating a hamburger," said Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga. "(But) there's a correlation between accidents and cell phone use."

In an influential study in 1997, Dr. Donald A. Redelmeier, a trauma physician in Toronto found that cell phone use quadrupled the risk of a collision -- and that hands-free devices didn't reduce the risk.

"It's not just important that a driver keep his hands on the wheel, it's important to keep your mind on the road," he said. His study, which examined 699 collisions, appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.

However, Redelmeier applauded the hands-free law as an enforceable step toward reducing the risks of distracted driving. Any legislation should increase awareness of the dangers of cell phone use while driving, he said, in the same way that seat belt laws brought about greater acceptance of the safety measure.

New York drivers will become participants in a giant effort to settle the disparity between the conflicting studies. The hands-free law calls for the State Police and the Department of Motor Vehicles to study links between cell phone use and highway fatalities.

If the results point to other sources of distracted driving, they should be targeted with legislation or with safety awareness campaigns, Tokasz said.

For now, the law will make the roads safer while heading off a patchwork of different regulations in a state where three counties have already restricted cell phone use, he said.

News Staff Reporter John Bonfatti contributed to this story.

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