Tickets cut cell phone use in NYC

Sunday, June 15, 2003

NEW YORK -- It was a small skirmish in New York state's battle to stop motorists from using hand-held cell phones while driving.

Eliezar Chassine, a 48-year-old psychotherapist, received a ticket in April for talking on a cell phone while driving south on 11th Avenue in Manhattan. He decided to fight, saying he had been using a hands-free speakerphone, which is permitted, along with headsets.

Chassine won his case this week when the officer couldn't remember the alleged infraction.

"I don't have any information about the vehicle," the policeman told Administrative Law Judge Susan Kornhauser as he stood with Chassine in a small hearing room in Lower Manhattan.

"We're going to dismiss," the judge announced.

Chassine's ticket was one of more than 122,000 that have been issued since New York's law -- the only statewide ban in the nation -- took effect in late 2001. Dozens of other states are considering similar statutes.

Phone use down 50 percent

Data showing whether accidents have diminished under the ban won't be available until 2005, but officials say it already has curtailed the use of hand-held phones by drivers. Spot surveys by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have shown that the number of drivers seen talking on hand-held phones has been reduced by 50 percent.

"Our indications are that the law is working well," said Joe Picchi, chief spokesman for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Anything that stops drivers from being distracted is a good thing," added Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation.

But cell phone industry representatives say other distractions pose a greater safety risk than driving while talking on a hand-held device.

"There have been several studies, Virginia being the most recent, of distracted-driving accidents," said Kimberly Kuo, a representative of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. "Cell phones rank between fifth and eighth on the list of distractions." The survey by Virginia Commonwealth University examined more than 2,700 crash scenes. It concluded that cell phone use ranked sixth in a list of 14 distraction factors. Looking at accidents or traffic, driver fatigue, looking at scenery, passenger or child distractions and adjusting a radio or a compact-disc player were the top five causes.

In New York, where fines for cell phone violations can be as much as $100, stores have reported increased sales of hands-free accessories.

Culture of evasion

"Since the law, that part of my business has jumped from five to 10 custom-designed, hands-free installations a month to 15 or easily 30," said Jeffrey Jankelovits, president of Mobile Audio Specialists in Manhattan. "These installations begin at $400 and can go to $600 or $700. All of our systems are custom-mounted and will mute the stereo and answer the phone by the third ring."

New York's ban has spawned a culture of evasion. Motorists who requested anonymity -- some citing embarrassment for being scofflaws -- confessed they have developed surreptitious ways to conceal a phone.

One pharmacist said his phone is so tiny that it's easily covered by the palm of his hand, which he merely rests against an ear. A nurse said she drops her phone onto the front seat when she sees a police car.

Under New York's law, officers writing citations must ask whether the illegal cell phone call was an emergency.

"Police have to testify they asked the circumstances," lawyer Matthew Greenberg said. He said two of his most recent clients were acquitted after police failed to do so.

Times researcher Lynette Ferdinand in New York contributed to this report.

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