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City considers banning cell phone use in cars

City officials in Lawrence, Kan.,  are proposing the most aggressive cell phone ban in the country, according to a national group that studies cell phone usage.
/ Source: The Associated Press

City officials in this college town are proposing the most aggressive cell phone ban in the country, according to a national group that studies cell phone usage.

The proposal, which goes before the Lawrence's Traffic Safety Commission on Monday, would ban the use of hand-held cell phones and hands-free cell phone devices by all drivers.

"That would be a first in this country," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Bans in places such as New York, which became the first state to ban cell phone use by motorists four years ago, still allowed for hands-free devices. But recent research has shown that hands-free cell phones can be just as distracting.

Rader said research in Australia backed up claims that people using cell phones while driving were four times more likely to be in an injury accident, regardless of whether they were using a hands-free device.

"I think, initially, people assumed that the problem with using a cell phone while driving was the holding of the phone and the dialing of the phone," Rader said. "But now the body of research is suggesting that the conversation itself is the major distraction."

City commissioners and Mayor Mike Amyx declined to comment on the proposal before Monday's meeting.

Several members of the cell phone industry oppose the proposal, which originally targeted drivers younger than 18.

Jamie Hastings, director of government affairs for T-Mobile USA, told the Lawrence Journal-World that her company opposes a complete ban, and that city officials should consider a ban on "McDonald's coffee and kids in the back seat," which can be just as distracting.

John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel Corp., said Thursday that it would be appropriate public policy if all distractions were included in the ordinance. "But since that's not the case, I imagine we would not be supportive of it."

Taylor said Sprint Nextel's teenage-focused driver education program, "Focus on Driving," represents a better way to deal with driver distractions. While it hasn't been implemented in Kansas, Taylor said the program has been successful in Florida, Arizona, California, Washington and Virginia.

"We think the best way to change behavior is through education."

Scott Miller, a staff attorney for the city who handles police matters, said officers would need to take an aggressive enforcement strategy if the ban were to improve public safety and reduce accident rates.

"I'm not saying we would have to have more police officers. That's not my job to make that determination," Miller said. "But we would need to allocate police resources so they could spend time doing intensive enforcement of it."

The only exception to the ordinance, which must also be approved by the city commission, would be to make an emergency call. Violations could carry a maximum fine of $100, although the proposal lists no minimum.

"If you pass a ban that just prohibits the hand-held devices, you're sending a message that the hands-free devices are safe," said Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. "And that is false."