January 17, 2002

Delaware moved a step closer to joining New York as the second state to ban the use of hand-held cellular telephones while driving a motor vehicle when its public safety committee cleared a bill which does that for consideration by the House of Representatives.

The action came despite strong opposition from a group of  industry spokespersons and a fair amount of skepticism from committee members about whether the ban would be effective.

Representative Joseph Miro, the bill's primary sponsor, agreed that it did not cover the most critical point in the operation of a telephone -- dialing. He said he would agree to a 'friendly amendment' to address that aspect.

Miro insisted several times during testimony at a committee hearing on Jan. 17  that the measure that his proposal would significantly improve highway safety. "We've all observed drivers on the road using cell telephones. ... There are 120 million individuals who now have them and 40% say they use them while driving," he said.

He presented a witness, Charles Carter, who said he is "still suffering the pains" as a result of injuries received when a woman dialing her cell telephone plowed into his stopped car on Interstate 95, instigating a four-car pileup.

But Miro's proposal received its strongest support from his colleague, Representative Richard DiLiberto, who told the committee he was aware of at least one highway fatality in Delaware in which use of a cell phone was the proximate cause. DiLiberto, a lawyer, said he represented the family of a Sussex County woman pedestrian struck and killed by a car driven by a young man. The driver initially blamed the accident on brake failure, but it later was learned that he was talking by telephone to a friend about a rock concert at the time.

Telephone conversations frequently include "emotional involvement" which is considerably more likely to produce a higher level of distraction than other activities such as eating or changing stations on a radio, DiLiberto said.

Miro also drew support from Thomas Curran, director of public policy for Verizon Wireless, who testified said that the bill "is the right approach" to dealing with the issue. In addition to permitting use of devices which do not require holding the telephone, the law, if passed, would not go into effect until January, 2004, and would allow cited drivers to avoid paying the $50 fine by presenting evidence they had acquired remote-use devices.

The industry group, which represented several other companies in the cell telephone business, testified that existing state laws -- in Delaware and elsewhere -- are sufficient to deal with inattentive driving and that the industry is involved in an educational program to promote "responsible use" of the telephones.

Miro agreed that "cell telephones [have become] an integral part of life" but disputed the effectiveness of educational efforts. He said he visited several companies "as a customer in the market to buy a telephone" before deciding last autumn to introduce the legislation "and not one of them said anything to me about safety on the road."

2002. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic:

Read Federal Communications Commission guidelines for cellular telephone safety