Originally created 01/18/01

Cell phone proposal spurs debate



ATHENS, Ga. - A proposal to prohibit drivers in Athens-Clarke County from using hand-held cellular phones had its first public hearing Tuesday, but it's still unclear whether county commissioners will adopt the measure.

The proposed ordinance, initiated by Commissioner John Barrow, would impose a $150 fine on any driver using a hand-held cellular phone. Hands-free phones would still be permitted, and drivers could still use hand-held phones to make emergency calls.

The commission took public input on the proposal at its agenda-setting meeting Tuesday night. Agenda-setting sessions are for deliberation only; the commission is scheduled to vote on the ordinance Feb. 6.

Several people briefly spoke in favor of the proposal. But shouts of support were also heard when Commissioner Alvin Sheats argued that cell phones are no more dangerous than other driving distractions.

"Are we going to prohibit people from eating hot dogs?" Mr. Sheats asked, and he told a story about how he briefly drifted his car into another lane while eating a hot dog Monday. "I think somewhere in the Constitution it says something about inalienable rights."

Mayor Doc Eldridge, who frequently talks on a cell phone while driving, also said he would not support the ordinance, citing a large number of people who rely on cell phone conversations for their businesses. He also cited the costs involved with using hands-free devices, saying he recently priced a hands-free speaker system at $360. A hands-free microphone, which requires a headset, costs about $35, he said.

Though Commissioner States McCarter said he recently read a study showing that cell phone users are four times more likely to cause car accidents, there was little comment from other commissioners.

Mr. Barrow said he is "pleasantly surprised" by the amount of community support he's received for the proposal, including from cell phone-using drivers who acknowledge it's unsafe.