Lawrence cell phone ban would be strictest

Prohibition would include even hands-free devices

New York, you’ve got nothing on Lawrence.

New York state made national headlines four years ago for becoming the first state to ban motorists from using cell phones. But a proposed cell phone ban in Lawrence would be tougher than that law or any other cell phone ban in the country, a national group that studies cell phone usage said.

The proposed Lawrence ordinance – up for discussion Monday by the Traffic Safety Commission – would ban the use of both hand-held cell phones and hands-free cell phone devices by motorists.

“That would be a first in this country,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Other bans generally prohibit only hand-held devices, with some banning hands-free devices for certain types of motorists, such as teenagers or school bus drivers.

The Lawrence ban on hands-free devices would apply to all drivers, and some cell phone researchers said it was about time for a city to adopt such a ban.

“If you pass a ban that just prohibits the hand-held devices, you’re sending a message that the hands-free devices are safe, and that is false,” said Paul Atchley, an associate professor of psychology at Kansas University and one of the leading researchers of cell phones and motorists.

Rader said he agreed the research backs up claims that hands-free devices are no safer for motorists than hand-held ones. He said the institute – which is funded by the insurance industry to conduct studies on ways to improve driver safety – did an extensive study in Australia using cell phone records of people involved in accidents. The study showed people using a cell phone were four times as likely to get into an injury accident, regardless of whether they were using a hand-held or hands-free device. A Canadian study produced similar results.

“I think, initially, people assumed that the problem with using a cell phone while driving was the holding of the phone and the dialing of the phone, but now the body of research is suggesting that the conversation itself is the major distraction,” Rader said.

Cell phone companies, though, have disputed the dangers of hands-free phones.

“We would certainly oppose a complete ban,” Jamie Hastings, director of government affairs for T-Mobile USA, previously told the Journal-World. “We think there are distractions just as great. I suppose if you also want to ban McDonald’s coffee and kids in the back seat, then we wouldn’t oppose it.”

Rader said the fact that the hands-free research – conducted in 2004 – is relatively new is probably one reason communities haven’t started adopting hands-free bans. He also said some communities may be concerned about how to enforce the ban.

Enforcement challenges have been the issue that city staff members have cautioned traffic safety commissioners to consider. Scott Miller, a staff attorney for the city who handles many police related matters, said it likely would take an aggressive enforcement strategy for any ban to improve safety or reduce accident rates.

“I’m not saying we would have to have more police officers – that’s not my job to make that determination – but we would need to allocate police resources so they could spend time doing intensive enforcement for it,” Miller said.

Studies have suggested that the effectiveness of cell phone bans are related to the amount of enforcement and publicity that communities direct toward them. A study of the New York state ban found that hand-held cell phone use by drivers dropped by about half during the first months following the ban. But one year after the ban had been in place, hand-held cell phone usage among drivers had climbed to virtually the same rate as before the ban.

In Washington, D.C., though, hand-held cell phone usage went down about 50 percent following its ban and has remained below pre-ban levels. But enforcement activity in Washington, D.C., is aggressive. Tickets for cell phone violations there represent 8 percent of all moving violations compared with 4 percent in New York, according to studies compiled by the institute.

When traffic safety commissioners review the proposed ordinance at their Monday meeting – which begins at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall – it will be the second time in as many months that they’ve discussed cell phone bans.

At their May meeting, traffic safety commissioners considered an ordinance that would have banned the use of cell phones by drivers younger than 18. Instead, a majority of commissioners directed staff members to come up with a proposal that would ban cell phones for all motorists.

The ordinance commissioners are now set to consider has but one exception: Motorists could use a cell phone to make an emergency call to police, fire or other agencies.

The proposed ordinance lists a maximum fine of $100 for violating the ban, but lists no minimum fine.

In addition to the cell phone ban, traffic safety commissioners also will consider an ordinance that would double the fine for inattentive driving – from $60 to $120 – for any motorist involved in an accident while using a cell phone.

Any decision by the Traffic Safety Commission must be approved by city commissioners before it is final.