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Cell phone crackdown sparks worldwide debate

/ Source: The Associated Press

The world has never been more connected, but in some corners, it's developing a real hang-up over the ubiquitous cell phone.

Taking a cue from France's national railway, which offers phone-free "zen zones" on high-speed trains, Austria's second-largest city this week began ordering public transit commuters to keep their phones on silent mode.

The crackdown in the southern city of Graz has triggered a noisy debate between advocates of free speech and people who say they're simply fed up with having to listen to annoying ring tones and intrusive cell phone chatter.

"I know I insulted the cell phone goddess a little," Graz Mayor Siegfried Nagl said.

"But people need to know they don't have the right to be on the telephone permanently and constantly," he told Austrian television. "It's just not healthy to never be able to get any peace and quiet."

Graz's response to the proliferation of cell phones reflects a growing backlash against their abuse around the world, where mobiles and other portable communication devices outnumber people by a margin of 2-to-1 in many countries:

  • This week, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio filed pre-emptive legislation aimed at ensuring Americans won't be subjected to cell phone chitchat on airliners. DeFazio, D-Ore., introduced his bill after the European Union scrapped a longtime ban on the use of cell phones on flights and Air France-KLM launched trial on-board cellular service.
  • Last month, police in New Jersey started slapping drivers with a $100 fine for talking on a hand-held device or sending a text message. Across the U.S. this year, at least 21 state legislatures are considering some kind of ban on texting while driving.
  • France's SNCF rail company, determined to spare travelers cell phone cacophony, now operates "zen zones" in select compartments aboard intercity TGV bullet trains. The railway asks passengers seated in those areas to turn off their phones so everyone can "travel in a totally relaxing environment."

Denmark, Germany and Finland — home to mobile phone giant Nokia Corp. — offer similar "quiet compartment" sanctuaries on trains.

And aviation experts say the risk of in-flight cell phone use interfering with jetliner navigational equipment is minimized because the new systems won't connect in-flight phones directly to the ground. Instead, they'll use an onboard base station to link up to a satellite and then to ground networks.

But silencing chatterboxes isn't always easy.

Last May, Sweden's Stockholm Transport did away with "cell phone free zones" on subways, buses and commuter trains just 10 months after launching the spaces.

"It relied on people showing respect, but it didn't really work," spokesman Bjorn Holmberg said: Too many passengers wanted to use their commute to catch up on work calls, and some just felt safer with cell phones in hand.

In Graz, 120 miles south of Vienna, officials concede the new ban is purely voluntary, and say transit police won't be conducting inspections or handing out tickets.

Bus and streetcar commuters are still allowed to tap out cell phone text messages, or use their laptops to make wireless connections to the Internet.

Recent polls suggest two in three Austrians support the idea of getting cell phones under control in public places. Officials in Linz, the country's No. 3 city, are also considering transit restrictions, and some are even calling for a crackdown on personal cell phone use at the office.

"I don't really understand what all the fuss is about," said commuter Erich Matthes. "Who or what is so important that you can't stay off your cell phone for half an hour? Must one really be reachable everywhere at all times?"

Josef Kalina, a senior official with Austria's governing Social Democratic Party, dismissed the Graz ring tone ban as "a completely anachronistic idea."

"You really have to wonder what the politicians will think of next," he said. "How about a total ban on freedom of speech in the public transit system? Using the law to regulate communication between human beings should be rejected as absurd."

Nagl, the mayor, said he's glad to hear people talking about the issue — just not on their mobiles.

"I'm pleased to have triggered this enormous debate," he said.