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Hang Up and Drive

New York banned drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones. Ray Suarez talks with Republican state Senator Carl Marcellino, lead sponsor of the ban, and Martill Williams of the American Automobile Association.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    New York is the first state to ban talking on a handheld cellular telephone while driving. Similar bans have been proposed in 41 other states in the last two and a half years. Now, two views on the new law and it's impact. Republican State Senator Carl Marcellino was the lead sponsor of the phone ban legislation in the New York State Senate. Mantill Williams is the director of public affairs for the American Automobile Association. Senator Marcellino, let's start with you. What was the impulse behind the law?

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    I don't believe that anyone in the country hasn't been cut off by someone driving with a cell phone in their hands. I know it's happened to me on numerous occasions. At one point in time I had an individual cut in front of me holding the phone in one hand, pointing to it with the other, no hands on the wheel. They were screaming into the phone. It is a dangerous thing to do, and we believe this bill will save lives.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Apart from the personal experience of you and your partner in the assembly, Assemblyman Ortiz who says he saw an accident caused the same way, was there hard data behind the New York law that shows driving while talking on a cell phone is dangerous?

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    Well, there is one study that comes out of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 that indicated that people who are driving with cell phones in their hands are as likely to have an accident as if they were… Had a blood alcohol content of .1, which in this state is a felony.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Is there a phase-in period? Are people going to start getting tickets right away as they're talking on the phone in the streets of New York?

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    No, there will be a warning period starting November 1 for a month. If you're stopped you'll get a warning and told you really shouldn't do that by a hands-free operation. After December 31, however, of this year you will begin to get tickets and could be ticketed up to $100 fine. However, we put a provision in the bill that says that if between the time you get your ticket and your appearance date in court you purchase a hands-free set, we'll forgive the fine.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Mantill Williams as this law is phased in over the rest of 2001, is it reasonable to expect there will be fewer accidents in New York State?

  • MANTILL WILLIAMS:

    Absolutely not. That's what we're saying that we will not see a safety benefit from this law. As a matter of fact we have a study that actually shows that. Japan implemented a hands-free a hand-held ban back in 1999, November of 1999. Before the ban they had less than 1% of accidents that were caused by cell phones, about 0.3%. After the ban was in place, they had the same result, 0.3% accidents due to cell phones and driving. That's where we are in this country right now. We have about a less than 1% of all our accidents are caused by cell phones. And what we're saying is that we recommend, we strongly recommend that motorists regardless of this law, talking on a phone and driving is dangerous. And you should not engage in it. But banning a hand-held device really will not have any safety benefit because the danger really isn't the intellectual distraction of the conversation itself, not the device. Hands-free is not risk-free. That hands-free feature is not a safety device. It is merely a convenience device. And what we're concerned about is that not only will people be talking on a phone hands free but it might even encourage them to talk on a phone longer. And having more people talk on a phone longer, that will not make our roads safer.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Senator, go ahead.

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    I couldn't disagree more with my colleague from the AAA. In fact I'm a little disappointed in the AAA, I would think they would be in the forefront looking for things that would make driving safer. This clearly will make it safer to drive. If you're not holding the cell phone to your ear, you do not have to worry about that phone you do not have to think about that phone. You don't have to shift hands when the arm starts to ache and move it from side to side. And there is this intellectual difference when you're talking with a phone. You are involved in a conversation like no other. You're on that phone and you're talking and it could be good news. It could be bad news. You could be making a deal — the whole nine yards. It is dangerous. We agree that talking on a cell phone is the key, but we need to educate the public. We can't tell them to stop talking in their cars. That would probably be ideally the best way. You shouldn't have anything going on in the car, just be totally alone. That we're not going to do. We know that's not going to work. But we can educate them that if you're on a cell phone you're at risk. What's worse, you're risking other people's lives at well.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Aren't there a lot of other distractions going on on the streets and highways of New York that you haven't mentioned in legislation?

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    Oh, sure. You know, the radio is a distraction, but, you know, everything else is kind of like background. It's not something you're directly involved in. You may be listening to the music. You may be listening to a ballgame. You're not that involved in those conversations. You're not that involved in those events. But when you're on the phone, it's you and that other person. There is a communication link there. The whole key here is we're telling you that if you're holding the phone, you're making it even worse than it would ordinarily be. So watch it. We're not trying to hurt anybody. We're not putting points on a license. We're not trying to penalize people excessively. But we do want them to think when they're driving and to think when they're using the phone. If they're holding it, it makes it that much worse. So we're saying, go ahead. If you're going to talk we know you can't stop you from talking. We know people will do that. When you have a phone in your hands you're adding to the problem. Most everybody agrees with us. I don't know why the AAA is not saying, "we join you and let's link hands and let's make this a success and let's work to reduce car accidents" which would in turn reduce automobile insurance policies and health care premiums and the whole nine yards. This would be a good thing. AAA, get on board.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, let me ask the AAA why aren't they saying we're joining you?

  • MANTILL WILLIAMS:

    Well, there are a couple of reasons why we're not saying we're going to join you on this. This is not a first step. This is not a step forward. This is a step backwards. Talking on a phone with a hands-free device is no safer than talking on the phone with a hands-held device. I understand intuition says this and we feel this way, but the data does not support this. The New England Journal of Medicine study, the 1997 New England Journal of Medicine study, it said specifically that there is no safety benefit from going from a hand-held device to a- hands-free device. It went on to say that they did not see… let me finish. It went on to say that it did not see a causal relationship between talking on a phone and driving at the same time and it went on also to say that you should not use that study as a way to promote legislation to ban hands-held cell phones.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Senator, doesn't the New York law explicitly provide for a move to hands-free operation?

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    Yes, it does. It encourages the move to hands-free operation because we want to get people to use both hands on the wheel. That's the key to the whole thing. If you've got one hand off the wheel and one hand on the wheel you're not driving to your optimum capability. We want you not using one hand for doing something else 789 we want you to) put both hands on the wheel and drive safely. I would be more impressed with the AAA's comments if they had said to me we're doing a study of our own to show the difference.

  • MANTILL WILLIAMS:

    Actually, sir, we did.

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    Let's see the study. And your numbers showed a great increase in accidents?

  • MANTILL WILLIAMS:

    Sir, we did a study, we released it in may and we presented our findings to Congress. And what that showed is that cell phones are one of many distracters. Cell phones represented 1.5% of all distracted driving crashes. And that's been consistent with all the other studies that we've shown. What we saw in that particular study is that the number one distracter are objects outside the car – over 29%. Right under that is adjusting climate controls and right under that is fiddling with the radio. And the cell phone was toward the bottom. Yes, talking on the cell phone and driving is dangerous, we recommend that motorists should not do it, whether a hands-free device or hand- held device. If we want to make a difference in safety we have to look at distracted driving as a whole and we have to educate people on how to manage their distractions in the car.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Senator, let's close by talking about how you'll know whether this is working. Governor Pataki has given every indication that he's going to sign the bill. Let's say New York fully implements, 2002, people are urged not to use the phone while they're in the car.. How will you know whether you're saving lives?

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    Well, we're asking for a survey to be done by the Department of Transportation and to collect data relative to this once the phone bill goes into effect to see if, in fact, we see a drop in accidents. Hopefully we will. I mean we've got the same arguments when: People said when we were using seatbelts, they don't work. It's an invasion of our personal privacy. It's not going to do anything. It's the most successful law ever done in saving lives while people are driving cars. Yet there are people who don't like them and to this date still don't use them. We're saying cell phones are a distraction. When you hold them in your hand, you're at risk. You're at even greater risk than normal. We would prefer you didn't talk at all while you're driving but you shouldn't use a cell phone while you are driving by holding it in your hand. Now if it's an emergency situation, that's one thing. Then you've got to do what you've god to do. But in this case we're hoping that the public will get the message and stop using these hand-held cell phones which are, in fact, a distraction while they're driving.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Senator Marcellino, Mr. Williams, thank you both.

  • CARL MARCELLINO:

    Thank you.

  • MANTILL WILLIAMS:

    Thank you.

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