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Cellphone providers won't fight driving bill
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — Wireless providers say they won't fight a bill that would outlaw driving while talking on a handheld cellphone.
"Quite frankly, when you're talking on a cellphone with someone, you're visualizing that person on the other line, not the road," said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, the bill's main sponsor.
But under the bill, Senate Bill 5160, drivers could still talk on the phone with hands-free or headset devices. Using a handheld cellphone while driving would be a secondary offense. That means you couldn't be pulled over for the infraction, but you could be cited if stopped for another reason.
Police would issue drivers a verbal warning for the first six months after the law takes effect. After that, violators would face a $101 fine.
An identical bill passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House Transportation Committee.
Cellphone companies Verizon, Cingular and Qwest say they don't oppose the bill, largely because it would allow hands-free devices and would create a statewide standard for cellphone use.
"What we don't want to see is a patchwork of local laws that would be confusing to people," said Dan Youmans, director of legislative affairs for Cingular. Although Cingular is not opposed to Eide's bill, the company is not officially supporting the legislation, either, Youmans said.
Opponents of such bills have argued that drivers can put on makeup, sip a latte or talk to their kids while driving — why should talking on a cellphone be any different?
Sprint/Nextel is the only cellphone provider publicly opposing the legislation, Eide said.
The company believes that education, not levying fines, is the best way to deter accidents caused by distracted drivers, Sprint/Nextel spokeswoman Mary Beth Lowell said.
A December study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Center for Statistics and Analysis estimated that 10 percent of U.S. drivers talk on a cellphone during daylight hours. The number of drivers using hands-free devices nearly doubled between 2004 and 2005, from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent.
Youmans said the growing popularity of hands-free devices contributed to Cingular's acceptance of the bill.
"Over time, with so many people now using wireless devices, we just kind of felt like we didn't need to oppose it anymore," Youmans said.
A standard headset costs anywhere from $18 to $26, Youmans said. Wireless headsets can cost as much as $100.
Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said the bill likely will get a hearing.
"I understand that there is a problem; this bill may or may not be the resolution," he said.
Eide said the Senate could pass the bill as early as this week, sending it to the House.
If passed, Washington would follow the lead of Washington, D.C., and states such as Connecticut, New Jersey and New York that already have similar laws. Last April, the Department of Defense also banned the use of handheld cellphones by drivers on the country's military installations.
Karen Johnson: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company