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Pressure mounts for cell-phone limits Safety Council calls for banning texting, talk while driving

This may be hard for anyone younger than 25 to believe, but at one time, drivers didn't use a cell phone every time they got behind the wheel.

No phones glued to drivers' hands. No Bluetooths clipped to their ears. No grammatically challenged text messages flying to and from wireless devices.

Now, the National Safety Council wants to return to this phone-free past.

Last month, the council, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., called for a total ban on cell phones for drivers, arguing that talking or texting while driving is a major distraction that causes too many crashes.

"It's not because it's the riskiest thing we do; it's because 100 million people are doing it. And they're doing it for long periods of time. It's the scope and magnitude of it," said John Ulczycki, a council spokesman.

The proposed regulation would go far beyond the law in every state, including New York, that allows drivers to talk through hands-free devices and to send text messages.

Backers of the cell-phone ban have a fight on their hands.

Even a modest approach to this issue -- legislation that would have banned texting while driving and the use of cell phones by teen drivers in this state -- died last summer in Albany.

"I do have more hope that this will happen" this year, said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, who sponsored the hands-free bill and has pushed for a cell-phone ban since 1995.

Drivers are divided on this measure, with some -- even those who admit to doing it -- saying talking on a phone while driving is too prevalent and a ban would boost safety.

Others say the law would be impossible to enforce and people do more dangerous things in their car, from fiddling with a global positioning system device to eating.

"There are quite a few things that are distracting. Where are the laws going to stop? You can't eat in your car?" asked Gina Bellante, a Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., resident who comes here on shopping visits and admits talking on a cell phone and texting while driving.

About 81 percent of people admit having talked on a cell phone while driving, and 18 percent say they have texted while driving, according to a Nationwide Insurance survey.

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found cell phone use contributes to 6 percent of crashes, at a cost of $43 billion and 2,600 deaths each year.

Recent state Department of Motor Vehicles data shows cell-phone use was a factor in 2 percent of crashes in Erie County and less than 0.3 percent statewide.

Studies have found that drivers are four times as likely to get into a crash while using their phone, the safety council reported.

"Where is your mind? Is it in the car or is it on the call?" asked Joshua T. Cohen, deputy director of the Center for the Evaluation of Value and Risk in Health at Tufts University.

Cell-phone access in a vehicle has advantages -- drivers can report an accident or avoid getting lost.

But the distraction of the conversation causes "inattention blindness," in which the driver sees a traffic signal, for example, but doesn't process it because his mind is on the call.

The conversation is no less distracting if the driver is using a hands-free device, research shows.

Conversing with someone else in the car is different because a passenger, when necessary, can stop talking or warn the driver of something.

Still, many drivers can't put down their cell phones.

Jason Campbell, 25, of Kenmore, said he tries to make calls only when his car is parked and never texts while driving. But sometimes he does slip up and talk while on the road.

A few drivers said they never answer their phone in the car.

Some said they try to talk only using a hands-free device or if it's a quick phone call.

"Sometimes, if I've got to get hold of somebody, or if it's an emergency, I guess. I'm not on it constantly," said Andy Smith, 23, a manager at Abercrombie Kids in Walden Galleria, one of several people recently interviewed in the Cheektowaga mall.

Several times, Carrie Waterrose of Snyder has caught herself swerving because she was distracted by texting, and a friend using a cell phone got into an accident on the Thruway.

"If it rings, I try to ignore it now," said Waterrose, 19.

A number send text messages while driving, despite the safety concerns, saying they believe they can text and pay attention to the road at the same time.

While most recognize that using a cell phone is distracting, other activities are just as likely to take their mind off the road.

An incomplete list? Putting on makeup, eating, unfolding a map, playing with the stereo, fiddling with an iPod, programming a GPS or turning around to yell at a child in the back seat.

"The issue is you talk on a cell phone for longer," said Dr. Dietrich Jehle, a professor in the University at Buffalo department of emergency medicine and associate medical director of Erie County Medical Center.

Kelly Cline said that while people do a lot of things in cars that they shouldn't, using a cell phone is the worst and it should be completely banned.

Cline has a personal stake in this issue. Her son, A.J. Larson, died in a December 2007 car crash that police blamed, in part, on distraction caused by his text messaging.

A texting ban and the ban on cell phones for teenage drivers were part of a package of traffic-safety bills that failed to pass last year in the State Legislature.

Six states, including New York, as well as the District of Columbia, require the use of a hands-free device. Seven states and the district ban texting by drivers.

Ortiz, the Brooklyn assemblyman, said he has reintroduced the cell-phone bills that were defeated last summer, and he is pushing another bill -- calling for a total ban on phone use -- that he first introduced in 1995.


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