Dialing and driving could soon be a $150 offense in Athens-Clarke County, if one commissioner's effort to ban the use of hand-held cellular phones behind the wheel is successful.
If an ordinance proposed this week by Commissioner John Barrow is adopted, Athens-Clarke would be only the second county in the nation to adopt such a ban.
This week, Mr. Barrow sent the county attorney's office a rough draft of the proposed ordinance, which is meant to curb cell phone-related traffic accidents. According to the draft, drivers caught talking or listening to hand-held cell phones while operating a vehicle would face a $150 fine.
Drivers would still be able to talk using hands-free cell phone devices, including headsets and other attachments, Mr. Barrow said.
Drivers using hand-held devices to call 911 or other emergency services would also be exempt from the ordinance.
"It's not a ban on cell phones. It's a ban on using them when you're driving if you're not using a hands-free device," Mr. Barrow said Thursday. "(The ordinance) seems like a no-brainer. The more you read about accidents involving cell phones, the more obvious it becomes that something needs to be done."
Mr. Barrow said his proposal is based on an ordinance that went into effect this month in Suffolk County, N.Y. A November article in The Washington Post reported that Suffolk County is the first county in the nation to adopt such an ordinance, although eight cities have passed restrictions on cell phone use.
Though state legislation regarding cell phone use has had little success in the United States, the governments of 16 other countries prohibit or limit cell phone use while driving, according to the Post article. In Japan, cell phone-related accidents declined 75 percent within a month of its ban, the article reported.
Locally, it's not clear how many of the county's car accidents are related to cell phone use, said Sgt. Frank Smith of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department's traffic unit.
Because accident report forms don't list cell phone use as one of the possible contributing factors in vehicle crashes, those types of accidents are usually lumped into a miscellaneous category, he said.
Sgt. Smith said he has seen a rise in cell phone-related accidents over the years as the devices have become more popular, but, he added, other factors can be equally dangerous.
"People have always been distracted while driving, whether they're eating or picking something up from the floorboard. Occasionally you even get someone reading the newspaper while driving down the road," he said.
County Attorney Ernie DePascale said Thursday he questions whether the proposed ordinance conflicts with a state statute.
Though the rough draft of the ordinance would permit hands-free cell phones - including phones with headsets - state law prohibits "wearing a headset or headphone which would impair such person's ability to hear" while driving.
Mr. DePascale said he sent copies of Mr. Barrow's ordinance and the state statute to Mayor Doc Eldridge and the rest of the commissioners, and it would be the mayor's decision whether to include the ordinance on the commission's next agenda.