Bill Requiring HandsFree Cell Phones Has Opposition

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LANSING — After hearing of many friends and constituents who have gotten into accidents while using their cell phones, State Rep. Ruth Johnson is trying to do something about it.

New legislation introduced by the Holly Republican would require hands-free devices on cell phones for driving in Michigan. The proposal classifies cell phone use that prevents the driver from having both hands on the wheel as a civil infraction, comparable to speeding or running a stop sign.

“The New England Journal of Medicine has found a 400-percent increase in accidents with the use of cell phones,” Johnson said while talking on her hands-free cell phone. “What I want is to promote responsible driving.”

But other legislators and some law enforcement officers and representatives of the telecommunications business disagree.

“We feel that cell phones are part of a larger problem of distracted driving,” said State Police Sgt. John Faccio.

Faccio said police departments throughout the state do keep track of whether cell phones are present during an accident. The information gathered from accident reports is then reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Faccio said the data might become available to the public at a later time.

“We think it’s an infringement of customer choice,” said Scott Stevenson, president of the Telecommunications Association of Michigan, an industry organization.

Stevenson said drivers face many distractions beyond cell phones, such as tuning radio stations, eating, drinking and talking to others in the car. “If you’re going to address this issue, you have to address all distractions.”

The legislation is pending in the House Transportation Committee, but has not come under review yet.

Committee chair Rep. Judson Gilbert, R-Algonac, said he needs more compelling evidence that cell phone use is causing harm before he recommends moving the bill to the full House.

“Until we look at all the other distractions, I don’t think we should move any legislation. I think we need to look at all of it.”

Gilbert added that there are already laws in Michigan against reckless driving, and these laws would cover accidents supposedly related to cell phone use.

Bill Cilluffo, assistant vice president of governmental relations for AAA of Michigan, agreed with Gilbert that more data is needed.

“We have never thought that we should be passing those laws. We know there are other distractions, so let’s be a little cautious before we ban something.”

Johnson’s bill isn’t the first proposal to regulate cell phone use while driving.

Rep. Bruce Patterson, R-Canton, sponsored an earlier measure that would increase fines if someone is pulled over for reckless driving while using a cell phone.

Hands-free cell phone legislation has been introduced in several other states, and three states have placed minimal restrictions on cell phone use while driving.

Prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, New York Gov. George Pataki issued an executive order banning state employees from using cell phones while driving.

There are currently some 100 bills pending in 40 states that would initiate even tougher restrictions.

Johnson said she is willing to consider other ideas on how to handle the issue, but believes that something needs to be done to get people to use hand-free devices while driving.

“I think it’s important because most people aren’t using hands-free devices. I’m a big user and I think people can do it responsibly,” she said.

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