David Teater's attitude toward driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone changed Jan. 19, 2004.
That's the day his 12-year-old son, Joseph, was killed in a Grand Rapids traffic accident. The driver of a Hummer, who acknowledged she was distracted by a cell phone conversation, drove through a red light and slammed into the Chevrolet Suburban the youngster was riding in.
Teater, of Spring Lake, supports efforts in Michigan to ban the use of hand-held cell phones for drivers. Text-messaging while driving also would be banned under the Michigan proposal now in the state House.
"When cell phones first came out, I thought they were the greatest productivity tool ever created," said Teater, 52, who routinely talked on his mobile phone while driving between west Michigan and the Detroit area when he worked for an auto supply company.
"After that accident, I looked at the research and was shocked to find out how dangerous it is to conduct a telephone conversation while driving," he said.
A half-dozen states — including New York, Connecticut and starting this summer, California — have banned talking on hand-held phones while driving. Another six states, including Michigan, allow local governments to adopt their own policies but have no statewide ban. And some states restrict cell phone use for new or young drivers.
Teater now works for a company that is working to make cell phones safer and easier to use, including technology that would sense when a phone is in "driving" mode so a driver won't be distracted while behind the wheel.
Legislation fizzled in the past
Convincing Michigan lawmakers that a new law is needed won't be easy. Similar legislation in Michigan has fizzled in the past few years because of concerns the law might curtail privacy rights or personal freedom, be too hard to enforce or ineffective.
Even some sponsors of the ban acknowledge that talking on cell phones while behind the wheel has become part of generally accepted culture for both business and social reasons.
"It's that culture of acceptance that has helped create the problem," said Rep. Gino Polidori, a Democrat from Dearborn.
Added bill sponsor Steve Bieda, a House Democrat from Warren: "If we had a confessional here, there are probably a number of us who have done this while driving."
But supporters also cite Michigan traffic accident reports for 2006 that show cellular phone use was a factor in 951 crashes. Driver distraction in some form was a factor in more than 3,600 accidents.
Some of the bills in the package would prohibit text messaging while driving. Those measures got the most support from the House Transportation Committee, which last week overwhelmingly voted to send them to the full House.
The bill that would ban hand-held cell phone conversations, however, barely got enough votes to advance to the House floor.
The measures would let drivers talk on cell phones if they're using devices that let them chat while keeping their hands free to drive. But they couldn't make a call using a hand-held cell phone except in a medical emergency, to report a traffic accident or hazard or to report or avoid a crime. Phone use also would be allowed if there was a threat to a driver's personal safety.
The provision would be enforced only if a driver first was pulled over for another traffic offense. Drivers could be fined $100 for talking on a hand-held phone, or up to $500 for sending text messages while driving.
Permitting some mobile use
Rep. Michael Sak, a Grand Rapids Democrat who sponsored one of the bills, said supporters have worked with cell phone companies and automakers while drafting the legislation. It would allow the use of increasingly popular GPS devices, for instance, as well as other technology being built into cars to help drivers.
Police officers, emergency response workers and some others who use cell phones in their line of work would be exempt from the ban. Determining who should be exempt is sparking debate, with some lawmakers saying cell phones could be a distraction even while being used by emergency personnel.
It's not clear how the bills would fare if they passed the Democrat-controlled House and made it to the Senate, which has a Republican majority. A bill introduced by Detroit Democratic Sen. Buzz Thomas would ban drivers from using certain electronic devices, including cell phones, while behind the wheel. It hasn't gotten even a committee hearing.
Some say the bills banning hand-held cell phone use don't go far enough. They're not sure talking through a hands-free device is any safer than using a hand-held model.
But opponents argue there already are laws on the books covering careless or reckless driving, and that cell phone usage could be included in those definitions by law enforcement officials.
Some lawmakers think talking on cell phones isn't any more distracting than operating car radios and CD players, applying makeup, reading a map or eating while behind the wheel.
"We're trying to mandate and legislate personal discipline," said Rep. John Stahl, R-North Branch. "I don't think you can do that. How are you going to patrol that? Where does it end?"