Originally created 05/01/00

Cell phone drivers cautioned



So many things were stacked against John Harris the day he died that his widow doesn't think it would have made much difference whether he had been talking on a cell phone as he trudged through a tropical storm on Interstate 26.

According to relatives, Mr. Harris, 52, was rushing to a meeting in Columbia when he happened on merging traffic outside Orangeburg, S.C., early one morning in 1995. His secretary listened as he hydroplaned, crossed the highway median and plowed into an oncoming flatbed truck.

But Susie Harris, of Charleston, still thinks there should be laws against holding a phone while driving, not because of her husband but because of what she sees every day.

"They just go into a trance and don't pay any attention to what they're doing," Mrs. Harris, 51, said of cell phone drivers. "I'm totally against cell phones in the car."

Although common sense says using a cellular phone is a distraction to driving, hard evidence linking such conversations to an increase in traffic accidents isn't easy to come by. And as the backlash against the habit continues, lawmakers are hard pressed to find means -- or justification -- for making cruising with a phone pressed to the ear illegal, despite numerous attempts.

"I have yet to see any empirical studies to demonstrate that it is of sufficient menace that we should restrict people's liberties to use a phone in their vehicles, when it's important for their livelihood and may be important as a matter of safety," said South Carolina Rep. George "Chip" Campsen, R-Charleston. He is opposed to a bill banning hand-held phones in moving vehicles. It was introduced by a friend and political ally in April.

The bill was inspired, in part, by Mr. Harris' death.

"For me to change my position, I'd have to see some compelling evidence," Mr. Campsen said. "If we're going to prohibit cell phone use, well, we might have to prohibit eating a Big Mac in the car as well."

There isn't much compelling evidence, local authorities say, because unless a culprit in a car wreck admits to being diverted by a mobile phone, or the receiver is found in the hands of a victim, it's nearly impossible to lay blame in unexplained crashes.

That wasn't the case in at least one area accident. When Richmond County Coroner Leroy Sims arrived at the scene of a December fatality, he found the victim still holding a cellular phone. Lynn Marie Corley, 21, was killed in a head-on collision in the 3100 block of Damascus Road three days before Christmas. Ms. Corley was on her way home from work when her Pontiac crossed the center line and struck a pickup.

Members of her family said they are still too distraught by the tragedy to talk about it.

Raising the risk

Another clear-cut case occurred last year in Lawrenceville, Ga., when a teen-age driver using a cell phone swerved off a neighborhood street, striking a mother and son who were taking a walk. Ryan Duffner, 4, was killed, along with the family dog. Lisa Duffner, 35, was in a coma for three days.

Ashley Lane, who was 16 at the time, received a sentence of 90 days in boot camp after being charged with first-degree vehicular homicide and four counts of hit-and-run.

Today, Mrs. Duffner is an activist against irresponsible cell phone use. She is setting up a Web site and says her Ford van, adorned with magnetic signs reading, "Hang up and drive. Cell phone abuse kills," usually gets a thumbs-up from other drivers.

The signs also show a picture of Ryan.

"Hopefully, I can help someone not have to go through what we went through," Mrs. Duffner said.

More than 91 million Americans -- 33 percent -- own cellular phones, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. An admittedly "unscientific" study done by Augusta Safe Communities Coalition member Nan Miller suggested motorists know cell phones hinder driving but use them anyway.

Twenty-seven of 40 people she surveyed used cellular phones while driving. Twenty-four believed it affected them but chose not to pull over, the study showed.

"They knew that it was bad to be using them, and they knew they could develop other habits, but they won't do it," Ms. Miller said.

Rep. Harry "Chip" Limehouse, R-Charleston, who is sponsoring the South Carolina bill, said driving with a phone is as dangerous as driving drunk, a notion echoing a 1997 study of Canadian drivers published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The study concluded that cell phone use increases the risk of a collision by 400 percent.

Mr. Limehouse's proposed law would permit "hands-free" phones in cars with microphone or mounted speaker attachments. Using conventional mobile or cellular phones while driving would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 10 days in jail and a $50 fine.

Hands-free kits can cost between $200 and $400 to purchase and install.

Some case studies have shown that the conversation -- not the fiddling with equipment -- is the biggest threat to safe driving, which would mean mounted phones are just as dangerous. About one in four crashes recorded last year could be chalked up to some form of driver distraction, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"I think two hands on the wheel is the best policy," Mr. Limehouse said.

Unlawful detractor?

At least 34 other states have seen bills introduced in legislatures aimed at curbing automobile phone use. None passed. Only three towns in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio have laws against driving while using a phone.

During the 2000 Georgia General Assembly, which ended in March, three Senate bills, one House bill and one Senate resolution were proposed concerning cell phones in cars. A bill introduced by Sen. Michael Egan, R-Atlanta, would have made using a phone while driving a misdemeanor. Other bills would have made using a phone while driving illegal if it occupies both hands.

Even the resolution, which merely urged drivers to use hands-free devices or pull over before placing calls, failed to reach a floor vote.

Mrs. Duffner was among those testifying in committee hearings. She was disappointed by the outcome.

"People think we're infringing on their rights. My son had a right to life -- a little more important than free speech," Mrs. Duffner said.

Mr. Egan said he suspects his bill's failure had to do with lobbying by telephone companies. An industry representative said lawmakers throughout the country are finding insufficient evidence to single out wireless phones as an unlawful detractor, when everything from fast food to CD players can also lead to crashes.

Rather than tougher laws, said Lisa Ihde, wireless education programs manager for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the key to making cell phones safer is teaching customers about responsible use, which the industry is doing through bill inserts, in-store displays and public service announcements on radio and television. Forcing motorists to pull over to place calls would only clutter emergency lanes and cause headaches with more drivers pulling in and out of traffic, she contended.

"There are laws on the books of every state that address unattentive, careless driving," Ms. Ihde said.

Due care

Richmond County Chief Assistant Solicitor Jeb Murray said the existing law that applies to phones, which falls under the heading of "Driver to exercise due care," would have been amended and is useless in prosecuting phone users who pay more attention to conversations than the road.

State Court Judge Richard Slaby said the law is more commonly used in civil cases and can't remember anyone being cited under that law alone.

"The problem with the existing law is that the proper use of a mobile telephone is not defined," Mr. Murray said. "It would be tough to prosecute because of it's vagueness, if it were challenged."

The South Carolina bill likely to face stiff opposition, and it might be too late in the session for it to weave through various committees to reach the House floor and Senate. South Carolina's General Assembly session ends June 1.

"It's got an uphill battle for this year, I know that," Mr. Limehouse said. "I've got the awareness going this year, and then maybe next year we'll get it passed."

Since 1991, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been tracking fatal accidents where police listed cell phones as a contributing factor. Each year, the nationwide figure has steadily risen, from seven in 1991, up to 40 in 1995 and reaching 61 by 1998. Spokeswoman Liz Neblett warned that the numbers aren't too reliable in measuring the danger of phones in cars, because officers often don't know what caused a crash and not all departments are logging cell phones as crash factors. The numbers could be low, she said.

A more comprehensive NHTSA study of the effects of driving distractions will begin later this year using a sophisticated road simulator, she said. Cell phone use is one of many factors to be tested.

Mrs. Harris isn't so sure the proposed South Carolina law would have saved her husband's life if it had been in effect five years ago. One thing she can say is that if it weren't for the phone, his family would never have known for sure what happened.

"It could have distracted him," Mrs. Harris said. "I don't want to believe that's what happened."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or jedwards92@hotmail.com.