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MOTORISTS' CELLULAR PHONES PUT WITHIN REACH OF THE LAW

Starting Thursday, motorists who steer with one hand and hold a cell phone with the other face getting pulled over by police.

The purpose of the new state law is to help motorists focus on their chief responsibility -- driving safely.

For those who find letting go of their phones difficult, the law provides an initial one-month period in which violators will receive a warning when stopped by police.

On Dec. 1, police will start writing tickets carrying fines of up to $100. But even then, drivers will be able to disconnect from the penalty if they show up in court with evidence they have bought headsets and other devices allowing for hands-free operation of the phones.

The grace period ends March 1, when judges will begin imposing fines. The only drivers who will get a break are those who can prove they were holding their phones to report emergencies such as accidents.

And though the law tightens restrictions on gabbing and driving, it lacks teeth for more severe penalties. Motorists convicted of holding their phones and driving will not be assessed points.

"We're told that no points will be assigned to an individual motorist's driver's license because of this violation," said Erie County Clerk David J. Swarts. "Also, the law says that an illegal hand-held mobile phone infraction will not be considered a violation of a probationary license, which is the first six months a motorist serves following the road test."

Still, drivers caught illegally using their cellular phones will open themselves up to closer law enforcement scrutiny.

"Our deputies will be stopping motorists who do not obey the law, and we'll do compliance checks such as checking to make sure the drivers are wearing their seat belts," said Richard T. Donovan, chief deputy of the Erie County Sheriff's Department.

A number of motorists and police officials interviewed last week from across Western New York agreed that the new law has merit.

"What if you're on the phone with your spouse and having problems? Your mind is definitely distracted and not focusing on the road," said Nicholas Pugliese of Buffalo. "I used to drive and talk on my cell phone, but I decided that there was nothing that important that it couldn't wait."

Hector Pagan of Buffalo bought a cellular phone with as many safety features as he could find.

"My cellular phone has a speaker phone device built into it," he said, explaining that it eliminates the need to plug in the hands-free device, which usually involves putting on a headset and clipping on a microphone.

Cheektowaga Police Chief Bruce D. Chamberlin says that driving distractions are plentiful.

"You can wind up climbing a tree if you're looking at a map with a global-positioning system in your vehicle, but I do think you can train yourself to talk on the phone and drive," Chamberlin said. "Police officers do it in patrol cars with two-way radios all the time."

Taking an opposite view is Town of Tonawanda Police Chief Samuel M. Palmiere.

"Maybe this law is the first step in writing even stricter laws against distractions when driving," he said.

Area stores that sell hands-free devices have reported a sharp increase in sales. The mechanisms cost from about $10 to $40.

Renee Cap, a saleswoman at Radio Shack in Buffalo's Main Place Mall, said, "A lot of people have been coming in and saying they need a headset for their cell phones."

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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