City Hall mulls cell-phone law
Tony Oros two or three years ago was driving a motorcycle in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley when a girl behind the wheel in a car, perhaps a 17-year-old, abruptly switched lanes at an intersection and then slammed on her brakes as the light turned red.
Oros, a professional musician in Park City, could not avoid the teen-ager and crashed the motorcycle, borrowed from a friend, leaving Oros with road rash and the motorcycle with $1,200 in damage, he says.
The culprit in the accident, Oros says, was a cell phone that he says the teen-ager was chatting on as she switched lanes. After the accident, she did not hang up, instead continuing to gab and giggle, Oros remembers.
"I don’t know if she changed calls and called her parents," says Oros, who recently approached Mayor Dana Williams and the Park City Council regarding the prospects of City Hall enacting a law prohibiting people from talking on cell phones while they are driving.
The City Council showed some interest in the issue and asked that City Hall attorneys research such laws. Park City Attorney Mark Harrington says that he expects in July that he will provide the elected officials with a memo describing laws in other cities and how courts have ruled on the local-level laws.
Harrington says, however, he does not plan to draft an ordinance for the City Council to consider. If the elected officials wanted to pursue an ordinance, they would request that the Legal Department draft one and then hold a hearing before it is enacted.
The discussion in Park City is similar to those held in lots of other communities in the U.S. as cell phones become more popular and people complain about them distracting drivers, even as headsets are seen more often.
"I just know that they’re barely paying attention to their own car, let alone another car," bicyclists or people walking on a street, Oros says.
Rolayne Fairclough, a spokesperson for the American Automobile Association in Utah, says that cell phones distract drivers and AAA several years ago wanted the Legislature to pass a similar law to what Oros requested from City Hall. The Statehouse was not interested, however.
"Things happen so quickly when you’re driving," she says. "This can be incredibly dangerous."
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, three states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — and the District of Columbia by October 2005 had enacted laws barring people from using hand-held cell phones while they were driving.
A study conducted by the agency released in December estimates that 10 percent of drivers in the daylight hours were using cell phones in 2005. It finds that, of drivers ages 16 to 24, 10 percent were driving while holding a phone to their ears, up 2 percentage points in one year. It is the age group with the highest percentage of drivers using cell phones.
The study finds that, in the West, 8 percent of drivers had a phone to their ear, up 2 percentage points from the year before. The percentage is tied with the Midwest for the highest.
"Distraction is a huge problem when you’re driving," Fairclough says.
Phil Kirk, a lieutenant in the Park City Police Department, estimates that, over three years, 25 percent of the drivers who are pulled over in Park City for traffic violations were on talking on cell phones. Construction workers are frequently seen driving with cell phones, for instance, Kirk says.
Kirk says he sometimes warns people against the practice but says he does not write people tickets for talking on a cell phone while driving. Kirk declines to say whether he supports a law but says, if one is passed, he prefers it be a state law, not a Park City one, for consistency in Utah. He hopes more conclusive research is conducted regarding the dangers before a law passes.
"There’s no question that it divides their attention and distracts them," Kirk says, acknowledging that the Police Department does not have a rule against driving and talking on a cell phone because police officers frequently must communicate with each other and dispatchers in an emergency.
Oros, who was in the Southern California accident, admits he talks on his cell phone while he drives in cars, perhaps three of four times a week in the winter and a little less frequently in the summer. He says, though, that he tries to limit his phone calls to less than 30 seconds. If they go longer, Oros says, he tries to pull over.
"I feel I’m more aware than most drivers," Oros says.
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