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When Should Cell Phones Be Turned Off?

Aired March 21, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: During the campaign I said that we'll begin the process.


During the campaign I said we'll begin the process.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight: It drives him crazy: ringing cell phones. So President Bush has instituted a no-cell-phone rule. Is such a rule also needed outside the Oval Office: in restaurants, theaters and cars?

ANNOUNCER: Live, from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left: Bill Press. On the right: Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE: Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Alliance, and in New York, radio talk-show host Sam Greenfield.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

What's the quickest way to make George W. Bush mad? Ask the journalists whose cell phones went off during yesterday's meeting in the Oval Office. Bush was speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he was interrupted, not just once, but twice, by ringing cell phones.

After one call he stopped himself in mid sentence to express his displeasure.

George W. Bush finds cell phones annoying. So do a lot of people, it turns out. Currently, there are 40 states considering legislation to regulate cell phones, most banning cell phones in cars, but some taking the law into their own hands, banning cell phones from trains, golf courses, museums, hospitals, symphonies, even the massage area of one salon.

Are cell phones becoming the cigarettes of the new millennium? Will users soon find themselves huddled in shame outside building entrances, ducking into restrooms to sneak a call? Are cell phones a menace to the country's safety and comfort, or are they a necessary convenience, sometimes even a lifesaver? We'll make the call tonight -- Bill.

PRESS: Dave McCurdy, good to have you on CROSSFIRE. I want to fess up. I own a cell phone. I am not a luddite. I hope I'm one of those that use it judiciously.

But I'm also a victim. About 10 years ago I was rear-ended by some jerk coming around the corner, talking on a cell phone, not looking, and needless to say not the only car accident caused by a cell phone.

One of the more famous was last year, when Senate candidate Jack E. Robinson, up in Massachusetts, running against Teddy Kennedy, was driving in his car giving an interview to a radio station on the phone.

Please, listen up.


JACK E. ROBINSON (R-MA), SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: What you have is a Republican governor abdicating the U.S. Senate campaign to Senator Kennedy just because the governor doesn't think that there could be...

I just got in an accident.



PRESS: I mean, how long, Dave McCurdy, before we do the sensible thing and ban people from hand-held cell phones while driving?

DAVE MCCURDY, PRESIDENT, ELECTRONIC INDUSTRIES ALLIANCE: Well, you're making a distinction. You're saying hand-held versus...

PRESS: I'm starting there.

MCCURDY: Starting there, yes.

Many states have attempted that, but I think common sense has prevailed. This is an issue of common sense for everyone. And I believe, you know, you led in with President Bush being irritated. I'd be irritated too. You have to have common sense in the White House not to have a cell phone on. Put it on the silent ringer if you're going to do that.

Anytime we do forums, one of the things we announce in the beginning is mute the cell phone, turn them off. They're important.

As far as cars, there are new devices you can use that make it so you don't have your hands, but it's an issue of distraction, and I believe cell phones are not the only cause. In fact, if you look at the statistics of all the accidents, it's less than 2 percent of the accidents. Nineteen percent of the accidents are for eating or drinking in a car. Twenty percent for having conversations, being distracted for other reasons.

Let's just not pick on the cell phones, because these are actually a safety device, life-saving device, an important tool for all of us.

PRESS: But here's the problem. I mean, there are other distractions, that is true, and some of them have been around, like women putting makeup on, a long time. But the cell phone is something new, and they're expanding and they're exploding. And even with that little thing in your ear, it is another distraction.

You talk about statistics: "New England Journal of Medicine" said a couple of years ago that you're four times more likely to have an accident if you're driving while talking on your cell phone. And they said it's gotten just about as bad as drunken driving. I mean, we're now going to have new organization, instead of MADD, I mean, it's like, MAC -- right? Mothers Against Cell phones in cars.

MCCURDY: Again, if you look at the cell phone industry, and others, what they are advocating is a good education program for people to use common sense. You shouldn't be having one hand up, involved in some animated conversation because it can be distracting and can be dangerous. There are alternatives to that.

But let me tell you, as the father of a teenage daughter, I want her to have that cell phone in the car, because I want her, if there's an emergency or a problem, to be able to get that cell phone and to make those calls.

There are 43,000 911 calls made every day on cell phones. And that's -- sorry -- 118,000. Forty-three million, annually. So this is a very important tool. It can be abused, like anything else, and we in the industry believe that people should use discretion and some common sense.

CARLSON: Sam Greenfield, you heard the study that Dave McCurdy made reference to. It was done by the AAA, and it found that if all the accidents caused by driver distraction, less than 2 percent, were related in any way to cell phones, and the rest were because of rubber necking or eating or applying makeup or changing the dial on the radio -- you've got to admit, this is basically a yuppie crusade. You don't like when people talk on cell phones, because it's unattractive, therefore you want to make it illegal. Isn't that what's going on?

SAM GREENFIELD, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I'm still trying to work through the banning of cell phones at a massage parlor. I haven't gotten by that yet. I'm still trying to figure...


I'm trying to work through that. You know, "Oh, I'm here. Oh, I'm here." I really...

PRESS: "It feels good!" GREENFIELD: "911, baby!"


I think that cell phones -- I think cell phones are invaluable. I think if there's an emergency, you pull off to the side of the road and you make the call. The people who are getting into accidents, like Mr. Robinson, are yakking. And there -- you know, you guys are in D.C., my home town, and there's a three-point ticket, traffic ticket in D.C., failure to pay full-time attention to the road.

You have to concentrate when you drive. Mr. McCurdy was talking about common sense. If common sense was working, then we wouldn't need traffic lights.

I agree that it's only 2 percent, but that's still lives lost. If you have an emergency, like your teenage daughter, heaven forbid, might, pull over the side of road. Otherwise, it's yakking, and yakking takes away from watching the road.

Also, last night, I was at the play here in New York, "Judgment at Nuremberg," a very heavy, intense play. At the beginning of every Broadway play they tell people, "Please, turn off your cell phones." At the height of the climax of this play about Nazi Germany, (UNINTELLIGIBLE CELL PHONE-RINGING NOISES) you know. The guy should be dragged outside.

CARLSON: But wait a second, Sam. As you know, it's far, far more dangerous to pull over to the side of road. You're far more likely to lose your life if you pull over to the side of the road, because you can get hit from behind, and in fact, it's illegal on most freeways to pull over to the side of the road unless your car breaks down. Address this issue of the other driver...


GREENFIELD: What other emergency...

CARLSON: ... of the other -- hold on...

GREENFIELD: What other emergency would there be to make you pull over?

CARLSON: Well, if you care to make a phone call, pulling over to the side of road is a great way to get killed, but address the other reasons that people, as you said, lose their lives. How about listening to the radio? If you hear a particularly compelling NPR story, should you be allowed to listen to it?

GREENFIELD: No. I'm saying that you have to decide, you know, if something pulls your attention away from driving. If you're preoccupied with a conversation, you're not paying attention. It's just that simple. I'm not saying cell phones are the only thing. They're not.

Eating, drinking coffee, driving to a massage parlor... (LAUGHTER)

... all these things are huge distractions, but this should be in with it. If it's an emergency call, obviously not, and if it's an emergency, you would pull over. You'd get your flashers on and you would.

PRESS: I think we give Sam Greenfield credit also for the best imitation of a cell phone ring I've ever heard any human being perform.


GREENFIELD: Months in the making.


PRESS: Months in the making.

We're talking about saving lives in driving. Let me move on to another area, which, I admit, is not talking about saving lives, but it is pet peeve. I eat out a lot, and I love to enjoy my meal, and I don't want to breathe anybody else's smoke and I don't want to listen to anybody else's inane conversation.

And it makes me wonder about the people who feel they have to be having these loud -- they're always loud. Anybody on a cell phone always shouts. Did you ever notice? Makes we wonder about these people. And there's a, I saw this the other day, a man in a restaurant in New York -- don't even know his name -- said it better than I could.

Let's listen to him.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quite frankly, if you can't enjoy your dinner and if you can't enjoy the people you're with for that hour, then (a) you're probably with the wrong people at dinner, and (b) you know, there's something else wrong with you.


PRESS: I think the guy's got a point. Restaurants are certainly another place where you ought to just ban cell phones.

MCCURDY: Well, I don't think they should ban them. There are notices.

Our position is and my position is we don't have to have regulation for this. We as a marketplace and we as individuals can effectively regulate the use. There are golf courses now that in clubs that say you can't bring a cell phone on it. That's actually a pretty good measure.

PRESS: I'm going to get to that one. MCCURDY: But if you have -- if you have cell phones, in the new technology, in the digital age, you have text messages. This cell phone is on, but it's on silent ringer, so it doesn't ring, it doesn't vibrate. But there'll be a message there. People can contact you. They can leave you messages. After we're finished, I can go to it.

PRESS: All right, so the proper thing to do, you're saying, is to either mute it, put it on vibrator, put it on message there, or...

MCCURDY: Sam might like the vibrator.

PRESS: ... or maybe turn it off. I mean, which begs the question, what did we do, how did we survive before we had these damn phones? People could have a meal for an hour and a half. Their life would go on.

MCCURDY: Well, Bill, as you know, we used to have meals at home. We're out more and more. Society is changing. The technology can be a curse or a blessing, and I believe it's a blessing. It makes our lives more effective, more efficient, more productive, and I think safer as well. There are, you know, 112 million U.S. subscribers of cell phones today, and it's going up 40,000 every year. There'll be 1.2 billion worldwide next year.

PRESS: You won't be able to eat anywhere.

CARLSON: Now, Sam you talked about the play you were at last night and clearly you find cell phones annoying, I agree. But it brings up this larger question whether you can legislate aesthetics. I don't like halitosis. I don't want to make it illegal. I don't like chatty people on airplanes showing you pictures of their grandkids. I don't think they ought to go to jail.

But you seem to be saying that because something is annoying, it ought to be illegal. Should we make people say please and thank you? Should we require them to have perky greetings before noon? I mean, where do we stop if we're going to force them to have good manners?

GREENFIELD: No, you don't have to that. I've worked in restaurants. Restaurants are little duchies onto themselves. They always say we have the right to refuse service to anybody. They can set up any rules they want. They can set up rules about where the smoking facilities are, where the bathrooms are, what kind of dress code there is. They can do all those things.

CARLSON: No, actually, they can't, as you know, because in places like New York City, the city and in some cases the state has come in and said actually, it's such a good idea, we're going to force you not to allow smoking in your restaurant. And it's because of complaints like ones you're voicing about cell phones that the legislative process gets started.

GREENFIELD: Well, those rules are only in restaurants that are like 36 seats or less. Restaurants that are big will have a place where people can smoke. have you ever been to -- by the way, we're missing a very important point here. Cell phones are immeasurable important for people who are nuts because you can walk down the street talking to yourself and no one knows. This is an invaluable tool. You can just blather on and, you know, saying, we attack at dawn, and people go, oh, he's a big deal. I think that's important.

CARLSON: I think I've seen you do that.

GREENFIELD: Well, on the way to the massage parlor I was...

MCCURDY: But Sam, you're walking on the streets of New York City, perhaps, with all the Wall Street folks.

GREENFIELD: Oh, that's me.

MCCURDY: But when you're -- you go to Asia, Europe, cell phones have actually brought those countries into the 21st century. They bypassed land lines and the infrastructure which we developed for years. So, the cell phones are a fact of life. Quite frankly, the technology changes every single day, and you're going to see all kinds of new tools and new devices that I think will improve our lives.

GREENFIELD: I'm just flattered that you think I hang out with Wall Street types. That's the best. I'm so flattered.

PRESS: You're in New York. That's a stereotype we have of all of you New Yorkers.

GREENFIELD: Who can blame you?

PRESS: All right, Sam Greenfield, David McCurdy, hang in there. We're going to take a break here and you're going to have a chance to chat with our guest by cell phone or online right after the show in our chat room. Dave McCurdy and Sam Greenfield will be there at

When we come back, we've talked about how cell phones could cost lives. Are there also cases where cell phones can save lives? We'll be right back with more CROSSFIRE.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. So, there you have it. George Bush isn't the only one to banish cell phones from his presence. So does Queen Elizabeth. But would the queen and the prez change their minds if they stopped to think how valuable cell phones, on occasion, can be? Are cell phones insufferable or invaluable? That's our debate tonight with former Congressman Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Alliance; and New York radio talk show host Sam Greenfield -- Tucker.

CARLSON: Now Sam, I want you to listen to something. I want you to listen to a tape of a phone call placed from the boys bathroom at Santana High School. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A friend of mine was just was shot. I think a few others have.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You think there's a couple people been shot?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, I know you're really afraid, but we're on our way. OK, honey. We're on our way.


CARLSON: Now Sam, this cell phone call made the nightly news. Most don't, but there are thousands likes it, probably not quite as dramatic, but life-saving nonetheless that are placed every year from Americans in distress. I know you find cell phones annoying, but can you see why people would want to carry them with them despite the fact you find them aesthetically unpleasant?

GREENFIELD: Oh, I carry on with me. I'm not against cell phones at all. I'll against insanity and rudeness. I'm against what we were talking about before, the guy on the train. Remember when the first time they phones on airplanes, and somebody would make a call. What was the first thing they always said? Guess where I am? What's the purpose?


GREENFIELD: But a cell phone -- I mean, that young lady proved that cell phones are important, and they are important. I'm not decrying cell phones. I'm not against civilization moving forward, but when you're at restaurant or you're at a place where people think they're still at home, that's why they talk loudly. They think they're at home. They think this is a world unto themselves.

That's all I'm asking. But I do think Pete's right -- excuse me, Dave's right. I think that we don't need laws to regulate it. I think we need rules like on Amtrak, perhaps, please respect the rights of others. If you violate those rights, you will be thrown off. Hopefully, when the train stops.

MCCURDY: Well, but it's not just an issue of cell phones. I mean, there are a lot of loud people...


MCCURDY: ... wherever you are, and we've got a New Yorker to testify to that. But it is -- it goes back that common sense.

GREENFIELD: No, I agree with that, and the person who made the call from Santana High School obviously used the phone for its optimum purpose. I agree with that, but every good invention has a downside, and we have to recognize that downside and that's all I'm saying.

MCCURDY: You know, one of the ironies about that call from in the high school, many schools prohibit cell phones on the premises, and again, I think that's something that you have to balance. In my opinion, I think they should allowed with students. They shouldn't be on during school by any means, but there are occasions, especially for parents, to know where their kids are, and be able to pick them up and the like.

GREENFIELD: But now you're trusting 17-year-olds to turn off the cell phone during a math test and the teacher now has to say has everybody turned off their cell phones? You know, it's a very tough decision as far as cell phones. Obviously, this person at Santana High showed the need for it, but there's whole other world out there of really annoying, rude, self-centered people. I refer, of course, to the Redskins. No, I'm kidding.


PRESS: All right, I want to pick up there, Dave McCurdy. Sam used the words insanity and rudeness. I mean, there are places where cell phones -- you've made this point -- I'm making your point, places where cell phone are clearly appropriate. There are other place where they're not: Churches, funerals, movie theaters, concert halls. You can go down the list. Hospitals, I would even say, and you know what, sometimes not even CROSSFIRE can escape it.

Here's a little scene from right on the air last March with Ellen Fein when we had her on talking about manners or something.


PRESS: By the way, I haven't heard of her or from her since, but aren't there certain dangers, at least, if you would turn off your cell phone. Talk about the modern mating dance.


PRESS: Talking about modern mating, obviously. Looks like I was wearing the same thing.

GREENFIELD: I thought she was crawling away from embarrassment.

PRESS: Why is it that people, picking up on what Sam said, why is it that people who have these cell phones have to be such pigs. They're so rude. They're so obnoxious. They feel like I've got a phone. I can use it anywhere I want as loud as I want.

MCCURDY: Well, I sometimes wonder who people are talking to. If you get cab, a cab driver often just has that phone by the ear the whole time. Again, it goes back to -- we probably need to start instructing people today in schools and elsewhere about ethics and etiquette, whether it's in using computer, whether it's using your cell phone. We used to -- in school, they'd say don't chew gum. Well, you know, 17-year-olds are 17-year-olds.

But all it means is that society's progressed. This is the only industry in the world -- and we give higher quality products at a lower price and it's changing people's lives for the better.

PRESS: Wouldn't you agree, though, nobody would be talking about a ban anywhere if people just used common courtesy?

MCCURDY: Absolutely.

GREENFIELD: It's also a brand-new technology, and a lot of the shake-out of civil behavior and politeness is going to be accrued over the years. And I think we're actually turning towards civility. I mean, if you look at the XFL ratings, I think that's a good sign that we're moving away


CARLSON: But Sam, just in the 10 seconds we have left, then why aren't you focusing your energies on pushing cell phone manufacturers to make safer cell phones rather than beating up people who want to call home?

GREENFIELD: Because if I beat someone up, they'll hit me back and I'm a short guy and I can't take a punch.


CARLSON: That's the spirit, Sam Greenfield, honest man. Dave McCurdy, thank you.

MCCURDY: Thank you.

GREENFIELD: Thank you very much.

CARLSON: All right, Bill Press and I will be back for closing comments, dialing up our opinions, telling you whether or not cell phones ought to be allowed in public. We'll be right back.


CARLSON: Dave McCurdy and Sam Greenfield are in our chat room as we speak to take your questions. So, join them by logging on to

Bill, I have to say, you do have to give the liberal busybodies, and there are many of them, credit for energy. They sit around thinking up new ways to regulate your personal behavior. Don't smoke, don't use certain words, and now don't use cell phones. Very, very energetic group. Too bad they're wrecking America.

PRESS: Let me just tell you something. I was in Atlantic City this morning giving a speech. In the middle of my speech, a cell phone went off in the audience.

CARLSON: Maybe it's a reflection on your speaking style.

PRESS: And I have to tell, I had a G.W. Bush moment. I stared down that man. I said turn off that cell phone. But Tucker, I want to tell you, you are one the worst that I know. You know what I've got here? I've got five bucks, Tucker. Five bucks says you've got your cell phone in your pocket right now.

CARLSON: I do, indeed...

PRESS: I knew it.

CARLSON: ... on vibrate. Not a chance, Bill Press. I like my cell phone and I'm going -- it's a matter of personal liberty. Would Sam Adams have given up his cell phone? No way

PRESS: You take your cell phone to bed with bed with you. It's a crush.

CARLSON: Just as Sam Adams would have. It's a blow for liberty.

PRESS: Somehow, I don't think so. From the left, without cell phone, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. We'll see you later tonight in "THE SPIN ROOM."

CARLSON: We certainly will, with San Francisco Mayor "Downtown" Willie Brown. From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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