Effort would force drivers in Connecticut to hang up at the pump

| Monday, March 14, 2005

If a Connecticut state lawmaker has her way, drivers chatting on their cell phones while pumping fuel could face a $250 fine.

Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, wants drivers to hang up their cell phones when they fuel up their vehicles. She said there are already warnings pasted on fuel pumps informing people that a cell phone in the proximity of a fuel pump could cause an electrical charge that might ignite the pump. However, she said, there are no penalties.

“People just do not pay attention to the notices that are displayed for their protection and of course we sometimes believe that these dangerous events cannot possibly happen,” Stillman said during testimony on her bill before a legislative panel March 7. She acknowledged the fine might be difficult to enforce, but it could be a deterrent.

SB510 now awaits action in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Stillman’s bill is not the only piece of legislation in Connecticut that would crack down on drivers cell phone use.

Three state senators are pursuing efforts to add the state to the list of states that require drivers to keep their hands off the phone.

The bills, offered by Sens. Joseph Crisco, D-Woodbridge; Bill Finch, D-Bridgeport; and William Nickerson, R-Greenwich, would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” device would still be permitted.

Under Crisco’s version – SB51 – a driver stopped for using a hand-held phone could be fined up to $75. It would exempt emergency calls. SB567 and SB725, offered by Nickerson and Finch, respectively, don’t specify a fine amount.

Currently, New York and New Jersey have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. Several states, however, are in the process of addressing the issue.

But with cell-phone related incidents making up only a small percentage of motor vehicle accidents, even government officials wonder why this particular behavior was chosen for a law, since studies have shown that hands-free and hand-held cell phones are equally distracting.

“We’ve evaluated and come to the conclusion that hands-free use is just as risky or perhaps riskier than hand-held phones because it’s the cognitive distraction that can compromise driving” Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The New York Times.

Tyson said research within his agency and outside, along with driving simulations, found that it was the talking on a cell phone while driving – not holding it – that was distracting, and that therefore cell phones should be used only in emergencies.

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