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Law bars cell-phone rule

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF
Tony Oros, who is a musician in Park City, says he might start 'needling' the Utah Legislature to enact a law restricting people from using cell phones while they are driving. City Hall cannot pass its own law because the Legislature earlier in the year banned local governments from regulating cell phones, potentially a move in anticipation of a statewide rule, according to Park City Attorney Mark Harrington. Grayson West/Park Record
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Drivers chatting on their cell phones in Park City need not be worried about getting a ticket for doing so, even as the idea of banning the practice is mulled at City Hall.

Parkites at all hours, it seems, are seen with cell phones at their ears as they navigate through the city. Even the mayor acknowledges that, up until a few weeks ago, he regularly talked on his cell phone while he drove.

In a report to Mayor Dana Williams and the Park City Council, though, Mark Harrington, the city attorney, says that the Legislature, during its 2006 session, barred local governments from passing laws regulating drivers using cell phones.

Recently, Tony Oros, a Park City musician, approached the elected officials asking that a ban be put in place. At the time, Williams and the City Council were reluctant to commit to enacting a law and asked for more information, prompting the two-page report from Harrington.

Harrington says in the report that the legislators may have passed the 2006 bill in an effort to allow the Statehouse to later consider a law that would apply statewide rather than having individual cities and counties enact their own laws. The city attorney also notes that, potentially, Park City in the meantime could pass a law addressing what is described as "inattentive driving" or "careless driving."

In an interview, Williams says that Park City should not rush to make its own law. He says that there had been little discussion about the memo since it was distributed in late July and he prefers that more information, such as statistics showing the rate of accidents blamed on people talking on cell phones, be compiled.

"I don’t think it’s jumped, necessarily, to the top of the list of things we’ve got to get done," says Williams, who claims he receives up to 30 cell-phone calls each day while he is driving.

Harrington says in the memo that the state House of Representatives three times since 2000 attempted to restrict drivers using cell phones, including bills addressing hand-held phones, "inattentive driving" and people under 17 using cell phones while driving. None of the bills passed, Harrington says.

But the city attorney recommends that City Hall should monitor whether the Legislature passes a bill, or, if lawmakers balk, whether a local law should be adopted "if Park City determines that waiting on state legislation is not feasible."

Others have bans

Lots of Parkites say that the number of people using cell phones while driving has proliferated in recent years and there have been local discussions about a ban since at least 2001, when New York lawmakers made it illegal for people to use handheld cell phones while driving unless there was an emergency.

Since then, other states have enacted various iterations of cell-phone bans, such as barring people driving school buses from using them or making it illegal for people who hold a learner’s permit to talk on a cell phone while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based non-partisan group that monitors the laws.

The institute reports that three states — Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — and the District of Columbia have banned the practice. Other states allow local governments to decide whether to ban cell phones and, according to the institute, cities including Chicago, Detroit and Santa Fe, N.M., have adopted restrictions.

Utah is one of eight states that do not allow local governments to ban driving while talking on a cell phone. Others are Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma and Oregon, the institute says.

Oros, the musician who approached the Park City officials, says he is disappointed that the issue rests with the Statehouse instead of City Hall. He says he might lobby the Legislature instead. The state leaders do not meet again until the 2007 session, starting in January.

"It means maybe we need to start needling the people down in Salt Lake," Oros says, not committing to be the point person if supporters lobby the Legislature next year and praising City Hall for researching the topic. "I’m not relishing the idea of going down there for any reason. We did what we could."

Oros was slightly injured while he was riding a motorcycle in Southern California a few years ago and he blames the crash on a teen-aged girl who he says was talking on a cell phone as she abruptly switched lanes at an intersection and then slammed on her brakes as the light turned red.

Phil Kirk, a lieutenant in the Park City Police Department, recently estimated that, in the last three years, one in four drivers pulled over in the city for traffic violations were talking on cell phones.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, reported in December that, nationally in 2005, 6 percent of drivers were holding a phone to their ear. The figure was up one percentage point from the previous year.

Women held a phone while driving slightly more frequently than men and people between the ages of 16 and 24 were the most likely to be holding a phone to their ear, according to the agency.

People driving in the West were among the most likely to be using a cell phone, the agency found.

Oros, though, says he is no longer among those on cell phones while driving. He stopped once he started pressing City Hall, Oros says.

"I don’t think I’ve talked on the phone once for fear of hypocrisy," he says.


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