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Driving Under the Influence of Cell Phones

Aired June 26, 2001 - 12:30   ET



MARY DONAHUE (R), LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR, NEW YORK: We felt it was reasonable here to ban that use of handheld cell phones.

MANTILL WILLIAMS, AAA: You cannot pass a law that will make people pay attention. And you cannot eliminate conversation through legislation.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: driving under the influence of cell phones.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Can six million New York drivers give up their handheld cell phones? New York is the first state to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving a car.

Governor George Pataki says he's enthusiastic about signing the bill into law and believes it will save lives. This bill will take effect later this year. Opponents say cell phone dangers are unproven and the law can't be enforced. And let's face it, you can still eat, read the paper, and put on your mascara.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: And joining us today from New York: Republican state Senator Carl Marcellino.

VAN SUSTEREN: Here in Washington: Mantill Williams, the national spokesman for the American Automobile Association; Edward Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at the CATO Institute; and Rodney Slater, the former secretary of transportation. In our back row, Brandon Winchester (ph), Ian King and Amanda Casarez-Smith (ph).

Let me go first to you, Senator. Tell us what this law is.

CARL MARCELLINO (R), NEW YORK STATE SENATOR: This law basically says you can't be holding a cell phone in your hand while you're driving a car.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why was it so important? And what was the sort of -- what provoked this legislation in New York?

MARCELLINO: Oh, many incidents. I don't think there's any one of viewers out there who hasn't been cut off or nearly run over by someone who's been holding a cell phone to their ear, driving a car with one hand -- in some cases, with no hands.

VAN SUSTEREN: I've got to tell you, Senator, I've been cut off with people holding cans of soda or smoking cigarettes with two hands on the wheel. I've been cut off for lots of reasons.

MARCELLINO: You're absolutely right. But when you get involved in cell phones, now you're talking about intense conversations, making deals, getting bad news from one of your spouses or perhaps an employer. You're on the phone doing some intense work. This is not leisure. This is not background music on the radio. This is not just simply sipping a cup of coffee.

This is involving the driver's thinking, as well as part of his body because you're holding a phone. And what that usually means is that you're going to switch it from hand to hand. And it's very difficult to keep it in one hand for any great length of time. So they shift it around.

It becomes a problem. And the New York -- the New England Institute of Medicine produced a survey in 1997 saying that accident rates among cell phone drivers was the equivalent of driving with a 0.1 alcohol content, which is a felony in this state.

COSSACK: Senator, the only thing I think that your bill is going to accomplish is -- that you've told us about is -- it's not going to stop people from being involved on the telephone. It's not going to stop people from making deals. It's not going to stop people from having fights with their wives. It's merely going to stop them from holding the telephone in one hand or the other. So why is this bill necessary or effective?

MARCELLINO: Well, it'll be effective because most people will obey the law, as they do now. And most people will pay attention to what they're doing and at least put two hands on the wheel when they're driving. And that's important.

If they pay attention to the fact that when you're holding a cell phone, you're driving a car, you can't be doing two things at once. They're not mutually exclusive. But it's important that you pay attention to the road first. And at least if they've got two hands on the wheel, that gives them one step towards a safe driver as opposed to someone who's not really paying attention to the wheel.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, I've got to say, I really think -- and maybe I'm dead wrong -- but it's far more distracting to have three kids in the back seat who may be fighting because they're fighting over who gets the window than it is to have a cell phone.

And I'm not necessarily having that business conversation that's upsetting me. I might be having a friendly conversation with Roger about the show. I mean, why is this going to be -- you know, why do you think this is so much worse than the three kids fighting in the back seat?

MARCELLINO: Greta, if you think about it, when, a few years ago we didn't have cell phones in our hands, we weren't driving with cell phones. So in the last few years, thousands and thousands, if not millions of these phones have popped up. People are using them to a greater extent than ever before. And we've seen an increase in the accident rates as a result of the cell phones.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask our former secretary of transportation...


COSSACK: I think the problem is, you can't legislate against having three kids in the backseat, but you can legislate against using a cell phone.

VAN SUSTEREN: I think everyone would probably have a stroke if you did.

Let me go to our former secretary of transportation. When you were -- as our secretary of transportation, did the federal government commission any studies or was there any indication that cell phones might have a greater proportion of causing accidents than people who were perhaps having a drive-through hamburger?

RODNEY SLATER, FORMER TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: Well, we did start the process of looking at that kind of data. But the effort actually included a number of other matters that could be distractions when it comes to the driving experience. So we were looking at the issue across the board, but especially as it relates to cell phones.

VAN SUSTEREN: And the result? I mean, were the studies finished or were they completed?

SLATER: Well, they were. And they're ongoing. I mean, we have a number of studies that are completed. There was this New England study that found that the use of a cell phone caused individuals to have the likelihood of being involved in an accident increased by four times.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, let me ask you about those studies.

SLATER: But other studies have not found that to be as determinative. So, again, there -- the jury is out. But this is an issue that will continue to be studied over time.


COSSACK: The other thing is, don't you think it's really what -- and I think it's what Greta pointed out -- I mean, there's some conversation -- or what the Senator pointed out -- there's some conversations in which people are really tremendously involved and probably shouldn't be operating a car. And then there's the kind of conversations that, you know, that Greta and I have, which are equally as important, but...


VAN SUSTEREN: They're probably not important at all, but...

COSSACK: ... but perhaps we could drive a car. I mean, how -- that's the problem with generalizing it, isn't it?

SLATER: Well, clearly, you get into generalizations.

Now, I think though, at some point, we're going to get to a point where maybe it's not a handheld phone that you're using. It's a phone that is voice-activated and that sort of thing, which clearly allows a driver to focus more on the road. It's very important that that driver has his or her attention on the roadway and not be involved in activity that could be distracting.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, I'm so suspicious of studies. This New England study that you cite, do you know who funded it?

MARCELLINO: No, I do not.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, does anyone -- all right, let me go to you Mantill. You raised your hand.

Do you know who funded the study that the senator was talking about?

MANTILL WILLIAMS, AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION: The study that we're talking about is "The New England Journal of Medicine" study of 1997. And the study -- we're -- I think we're misinterpreting the results.

The study specifically said, Greta, that they did not find a causal relationship with driving and talking on the phone. What that means is, you could have been at a stoplight and someone could hit you with a truck, and that was counted.

And it also went on to say that it did not...

MARCELLINO: And it's counted because the people in the truck had a cell phone in their hand.

WILLIAMS: Well, it did not -- what my point is -- and it went on to say that it did -- it also went on to say that a hands-free device provides no safety benefit. And they even went on to say that you should not look at their study to promote legislation to ban these devices.

COSSACK: You know, I find that interesting. And I guess, just speaking from a personal standpoint, I must tell you that the idea of using a cell phone and driving, at least I find it to be dangerous. And one of the problems is, is that you're looking at the keyboard.

VAN SUSTEREN: I find it dangerous when I was driving with you without the cell phone. But that's another story. (LAUGHTER)

COSSACK: You're looking at the cell phone and you're looking to punch in telephone numbers. And it would seem to me that, just logically thinking, that's going to cause a problem.

VAN SUSTEREN: But, Roger, people read maps. People read maps. People are looking for addresses. People do all sorts of things.


COSSACK: The argument here cannot be that people do dangerous things, therefore, we should always -- we should not just stop one of them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well -- but the argument also can't be, if there are a few that are inattentive, with a small percentage causing accidents, that we're going to ban it for all the people who are attentive.


EDWARD HUDGINS, CATO INSTITUTE: Which is suggesting that -- No. 1, all states have laws against reckless driving and negligence, whether it's eating a Big Mac, whether it's changing the radio -- which, by the way, I think the AAA numbers are about 12 percent of accidents are caused by that. Only 1.5 percent are caused by cell phones. That's the first argument.

COSSACK: You know, I'm going to take this up with you. But we have to take a break.

But the notion that we have a statute for reckless driving and that we have a statute that also says you can't use a cell phone, and one is the same is as the other, I don't buy into. But we've got to take a break.

What's the price of all this safety? How about another piece of freedom? Is it worth it? We'll look at the big tradeoff right after this.


A Los Angeles judge ruled that "Survivor" contestant Stacey Stillman cannot be sued for breach of contract because of her claims that the show was rigged against here.

Judge Ralph Dau said a contract should not be the means to prevent someone from claiming impropriety.



COSSACK: Welcome back to BURDEN OF PROOF. New York's lieutenant governor, Mary Donahue, says the key motivation behind the state's handheld cell phone ban is safety. Well, what's the tradeoff: a little freedom for a lot of safety?

All right, Ed, now I know -- as a member of the CATO Institute, regulation just is not the thing you want to hear. But we were talking a little bit earlier about reckless driving. Well, reckless driving -- as I'm sure you know, when someone is charged with reckless driving, it's a lot more than perhaps talking on a cell phone. And that's why I think, if you're going to -- if you are going to have these kinds of regulations to worry about safety then, that's why a regulation like this perhaps is necessary.

HUDGINS: Well, actually that points out some of the dangers of this kind of legislation, is that you are going to start getting government micromanaging more forms of -- more types of technologies and activities, as we've said. You are more likely...


COSSACK: It doesn't bother -- certainly, no one here is going to be bothered by the fact that there are regulations and laws against drunk driving.

HUDGINS: Drunk driving is different, of course, because you're talking about physiologically changing yourself. It's a lot different to say that that is the equivalent of talking on a cell phone or talking to your spouse or changing a CD player.

COSSACK: On one hand, you've been drinking and you're not able to pay attention. On the other hand, you're just choosing not to pay attention.


HUDGINS: Well, that's true. But the point is, that's the problem with legislating it.

Let's look at a couple of other things. No. 1, technology is going to take care of a lot of these problems anyway. As we get more hand-free devices, voice activated or one-punch dialing, I think technology is going to take care of that. And a lot of people are going to want to use that anyway, because it's more convenient, frankly. But think of the dangers.

COSSACK: They're probably more expensive too.

HUDGINS: I don't know, because if you look at how -- if you look at the fact that we now have a 120 million Americans with cell phones, how quickly that has gone up, price, apparently, is not the big problem.

But here's the other thing: Look at the dangers. No. 1, we have lots of serious problems in this country with racial profiling, with police stopping people, arresting people for not wearing seat belts, where they're not really endangering public safety. Now you're going to give the police another reason to look into your car...


VAN SUSTEREN: Well, actually, that doesn't bother me as much. Rodney, that one...


VAN SUSTEREN: I'm more concerned with racial profiling than a cop looking...


COSSACK: Go ahead, Senator.

MARCELLINO: This is getting into the realm of poppycock. I mean, to get into racial profiling...

HUDGINS: Racial profiling is poppycock?


MARCELLINO: Excuse me. Excuse me. Using cell phones and linking the use of cell phones to racial profiling...

HUDGINS: I'm saying giving the government...

MARCELLINO: Whatever happened to the rule ...


MARCELLINO: Whatever happened to the rule that my right to reach my hand out stops when it contacts your nose? My right to be a reckless driver, my right to...

HUDGINS: You don't have to be a reckless driver.

MARCELLINO: ...impacts other people, especially in areas where there's high concentrations of population, such as the big cities and in the suburbs, where's there's a large amount...


MARCELLINO: You don't have a margin of error here.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is that what this is about, Rodney?

SLATER: The senator is talking about balance. And as we approach this issue, we have to have a balanced approach.

Let me just acknowledge the fact that we lose 40,000 people annually on our roadways. The No. 1 cause of death for children: automobile crashes. This is an issue that has to be addressed. But it has to be addressed in a balanced, reasoned fashion. And there is clearly no one size fits all. And here, New York state has made a decision, has taken a step forward. We should examine that decision and then decide how we move from that point forward.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mantill, how does seat belt regulations differ from cell phones?

WILLIAMS: This is a totally different situation. Our recommendation to motorists is that they should not talk on the phone while driving, period, whether it's handheld device or a hands-free device.

When you go to a hands-free device, that is not a safety feature. It is only a convenience device. It does not eliminate the danger, because the danger is in the intellectual distraction of the conversation.

COSSACK: But what about the radio?


VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, like -- I've got to tell you, I use the cell phone. And once in a while, this right arm gets a little bit sore and so I swap it for the left. So there is -- at least in my car, there's sometimes, there's that swap. So it's not just an intellectual distraction. There's a physical distraction.

WILLIAMS: There is somewhat of a physical distraction. But what makes you a safer driver isn't whether you have -- add an extra hand to the wheel in this era of power steering. What makes you a safer driver is focusing and paying attention to what you're doing, paying attention to driving.

COSSACK: Mantill, let me give you a hypothetical. You're driving down the highway and we're listening to our beloved Washington Redskins. There's a minute and a half left in the game and they're driving. And they're on about the 7 yard line. And where are you? Your head...


COSSACK: ... and your head is into that ball game, right?



COSSACK: Should we turn the ball game off at that time because it's distracting for the radio -- I mean distracting for the driver?

WILLIAMS: What we need to do is we need to manage all of these distractions. It would be great, Roger, if we could pass a law that would make people pay attention or if we could eliminate conversation from the driving experience completely. But we cannot do that through regulation, through laws. We have to educate people on how to manage their distraction within the car, just like you manage your day or you manage your office.


WILLIAMS: You have to manage those distractions.

HUDGINS: And remember, because we have the numbers out there from AAA that more accidents are caused, for example, by people changing radio stations and CDs and so forth, are we going to start getting government micromanaging these other things in the car?

This is a real danger, because we have seen this with people using excuses like seat belt laws and stuff like that.

COSSACK: I don't there's anybody who is going to argue this is an unreasonable intrusion. Senator...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, wait a second. Wait! I might argue that.


MARCELLINO: My guess is, some people had the same argument about seat belts and said it was a violation of my privacy. I have a right not to where a seat belt if I don't want to.

HUDGINS: Well, I think that's true.

MARCELLINO: It's my our personal safety. So, I mean, we know that seat belts save lives.


HUDGINS: And I think anyone who doesn't wear a seat belt is being irresponsible, but it's their business.


VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a quick break.

Is this New York law a trendsetter? A lot of people think it's a sign of things to come.


VAN SUSTEREN: We'll look at who's next right after this.


Q: For what crime did four police officers show up at a Minnesota man's home with an arrest warrant?



A: For failing to return overdue library books. LeRoy Anderson posted the $100 bail and paid his $69 late fee at the library.



VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back to BURDEN OF PROOF. We're talking about New York's ban on drivers using handheld cell phones. Are we witnessing the start of a nationwide trend? Who better to ask than our former secretary of transportation, Rodney Slater.

Is this a national trend?

SLATER: Well, it could be. But I think it's too early to tell. New York State is the first to move in this way. But you've got a number of municipalities to do so. And about 40 other states are considering the question.

Again, I would encourage everyone...




MARCELLINO: Eventually, it may work itself. But the law becomes in effect...

HUDGINS: So why have a dangerous law in place...


VAN SUSTEREN: I don't know if it's dangerous.


VAN SUSTEREN: Actually, I understand the concept. Let me go back to the senator. Senator, what happens if -- I have a D.C. driver's license. I'm driving through Manhattan, mid-November. I've got a 30-day grace period, right? The law starts November 1.

MARCELLINO: November 1 thorough December, you get a warning. And then after December, you're under a ticket up to $100. However, if you purchase a hands-free unit between the time you get the ticket and time of appearance date then you - the fine is forgiven.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, what about a second offender? What if driving through Manhattan now in January. I've done it in November, December and January.

COSSACK: Then you better be calling me!


MARCELLINO: And I agree with you. Then you need a good lawyer.


MARCELLINO: If I could get back to the -- my son, by the way, is an attorney. So perhaps I could recommend somebody.


MARCELLINO: If I might talk about the law spreading, we reacted because three counties in New York State proposed a law -- each of them slightly different. And I think if you see different states abutting each other, produce different legislation, then you need a national picture.

HUDGINS: And this is...


HUDGINS: Anyone who's talking about danger, one of the most serious problems we have is the federal government trying to mandate...

COSSACK: Ed, this is all about driving safety. This has...

VAN SUSTEREN: No, no, I - no, no, wait! But wait a second. The federal government has a way of withholding funds to put pressure on states even...


VAN SUSTEREN: I actually understand Ed's point.

HUDGINS: And by the way - excuse me, the Constitution of the United States - just to bring the Constitution into...


HUDGINS: Well, I like it too. And I don't see an Article I, Section 8 where it gives the federal government the responsibility of controlling local traffic, OK? That is something that indeed...

VAN SUSTEREN: They call it interstate commerce though, don't they?


HUDGINS: Everything is under interstate commerce.


HUDGINS: And by the way, this was with the 55 mile an hour speed limit. Of course, they did by prohibiting - by banning federal funds. And that was the problem.


WILLIAMS: Let's look at the substance of this law, OK? Let's not fool ourselves. All this will do - this is completely window dressing. All it does is hide the phone out of sight. People still will be able to talk on a phone and drive.


WILLIAMS: Let me finish, this is completely window dressing. Let me tell you why. All this does is put the phone out of sight. People will still be able to talk on the phone and drive. You still have to dial your phone and look at it if you haven't programmed your numbers into the phone. And in addition, it makes it more convenient to on a phone.

And what we're concerned about is that people may talk on the phone longer. And people talking on a phone and longer and driving, that does not make our roads safe. And it's very naive to think just because you have a hands-free device you may not use that hand for something else.

VAN SUSTEREN: It isn't talking, because you talk to passengers in your car. It's the dialing and looking away. It's not the talking because you have conversations with everybody in the car.


WILLIAMS: Now, we have 75 years of research that proves that the most dangerous distraction is the intellectual cognitive distraction. That is the most dangerous...

VAN SUSTEREN: How is that different between talking on a phone or talking to a passenger?

COSSACK: That kills our conversations, Greta.

WILLIAMS: You make a very good point. But we still need to find out more about the differences of...

VAN SUSTEREN: I think it's just a distraction of you looking at the phone, dialing...


WILLIAMS: It's actually looking at the intellectual...


COSSACK: It's all of it.


HUDGINS: And isn't this going to be wonderful to police this kind of a situation.

COSSACK: Ed, you got the last word. That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Hey, how funny are redneck jokes? And why is a schoolboy in trouble for his redneck t-shirt? E-mail your thoughts about politically incorrect humor to Bobbie Battista and tune in today at 3:00 p.m. eastern for "TALKBACK LIVE."

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm just going to e-mail my questions to you, Roger.

But tonight: Who's entering your local abortion clinic? Right now, the creator of our Web site wants you to just log on and look. Is this the First Amendment in action or a recipe for disaster? I'll get to "THE POINT" tonight on CNN.

We'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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