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Pick any street, road, or highway in the Bay Area, and you'll see them: cars suddenly switching lanes, whipping through stop signs, screeching to halts at red lights. Inside, the drivers are anxiously looking from side to side, because they're blabbing into a cellular phone. Whether you're bumper to bumper on one of the bridges, or sitting in a movie theater, listening to someone talk to his baby sitter, keep in mind that we live in the fifth-largest market for cell phones in the country. An estimated 1 million people in the Bay Area own a cell phone, with 85 percent of them using it in their cars.
Which naturally makes you wonder why, if it's illegal to speed or drive drunk, is it OK to operate a motor vehicle while talking on the phone, which arguably can be just as dangerous?
The political clout of the telecommunications industry certainly has something to do with it. But it also may be because no Bay Area cities have an elected official with the determination -- and staying power -- of John M. Coyne.
Coyne is the mayor of Brooklyn, Ohio, population 11,000. He's been mayor for 52 consecutive years, and is currently seeking re-election. The 82-year-old Coyne is also the man responsible for the nation's first and only law that flat-out bans drivers from using cell phones while operating a vehicle.
It all started right outside his office window. "We had an accident in front of our City Hall," explains Coyne. "There's a light there. The light turned red, an elderly woman was hit by a person talking on a cell phone. The police chief was pulling out of the yard and saw the whole thing!"
Brooklyn, a suburb of Cleveland, already was the birthplace of the nation's first mandatory seat belt law, and after the accident, Coyne set out to take on cell phones as well. City officials held a town meeting, and earlier this year populist legislation was passed assessing a $100 fine from anyone caught driving while talking on a cell phone. Since March, Brooklyn police have stopped over 160 drivers and issued them warnings.
Coyne expertly justifies his reasoning. "The leading cause of death in North America is automobile collision. We lose someone every 10 minutes in America," he says. "We're getting carried away with all these wonderful gimmicks. Common sense no longer exists."
The mayor could be dismissed as a lovable old coot, but the numbers are on his side.
A 1997 study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that cell-phone-using drivers are four times more likely to have an accident than those not driving and talking. A National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration study in January of this year discovered that driver inattention is a primary factor in half of all car crashes in the United States. With 78 million cell phones currently in use nationwide, and 100 million predicted by the end of the year, that's more potential accidents every day.
Other countries have completely banned cell phones while driving, including Britain, Brazil, Israel, Spain, and Switzerland. But here in the U.S., laws are wimpy and spotty. Only three states have passed any form of cell-phone legislation -- Florida, Massachusetts, and California. In Florida, phones are allowed as long as they provide sound through only one ear. Massachusetts allows phones, as long as the driver has one hand on the wheel at all times. Here in the Golden State, a 1987 law requires that rental cars with cell phones must include written operating instructions, but that's the extent of the law.
A later bill, introduced in 1997 by state Sen. John Burton, would have prohibited anyone from driving on the highway while using a cell phone unless it was a hands-free unit, but the law failed to pass. Over 20 states have proposed their own restrictions in the past few years, but not one bill has been enacted into law.
"It's not surprising," says policy specialist Matt Sundeen, of the National Conference on State Legislatures. "When you look at the issue right now, the industry is opposed to legislation. There's no organization on the flip side of that right now. AAA hasn't come out one way or another."
The AAA Foundation for Public Safety will remain neutral, says spokesperson Stephanie Fall, until the results of its own cell-phone study are released next year. But she says the gadget's bad reputation is premature and unfair.
"People have demonized cell phones," says Fall. "First they caused cancer, then car crashes. Now it may ignite the fumes at a gas station."
She cites the recent near-fatal accident involving country singer George Jones, who, while drunk, tried to hold his cell phone up to the CD player, and crashed his SUV. "Tell me which one caused the crash!" Fall says.
But Coyne knows how bad cell-phone accidents can be. A radio station in Austin, Texas, recently scheduled an interview with him to coincide with the funeral of a little girl who was walking on the sidewalk when she was struck and killed by a cell-phone driver.
In fact, Coyne is picking up the phone a lot since his new law passed. Everybody wants to talk. In addition to radio, television, People magazine, and the well-scrubbed Dan Rather, Coyne says state legislators are also asking him for copies of the Brooklyn law. He adds that cell-phone bans are going into effect in New York taxicabs and Catholic churches.
It would seem that the cell-phone companies don't appreciate his work. "Oh, God, they're having nightmares!" he says.
Well, not exactly. A spokesman from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a national organization of cell-phone companies, carefully explains that he knows of no current or pending legislation that bans or restricts the use of cell phones.
The standard service-provider response to legislation is, why? People should just be cognizant of others. Cell-phone companies already do enough, they feel. They provide free safety tips, and offer discounts on hands-free cell-phone equipment. The Bay Area's largest wireless carrier, Cellular One, will even pre-program a customer's phone right there in the store.
"It's really sort of up to every driver to be responsible," says Cellular One spokesperson Erin Eggleton. "It's just like doing anything else while you drive. Whether you're listening to the radio or eating a hamburger."
Drivers in at least one city will be more responsible starting Sept. 1. That's the date Brooklyn, Ohio, will begin imposing a $100 fine for using a cell phone behind the wheel. (Mayor Coyne says he'd rather see a smaller amount to start with, like "two or three dollars").
"We don't say, 'Don't use 'em,''' says the mayor. "If it's an emergency, make sure it's an emergency. But if you've got the gift of gab, pull off to the side of the road."
Coyne is convinced that if everyone looks logically at his law, it could be a national trend. But like all driving infractions, ignorance of the law is still no excuse. Even in Brooklyn, Ohio.
"As you come off the freeway -- we got two freeway exits here -- it's got a nice bright sign there. 'Cell-phone users, park. It's the law.