Cell-phone ban placed on hold
Aspen came close Monday night to becoming one of a very few cities in the United States to ban the use of cell phones while driving.But Mayor Rachel Richards led the City Council to table the proposed ban for five months, to give the city and the cell phone industry time to mount an “education campaign” aimed at cutting down the use of the devices by people who are driving on city streets.”I would prefer to see a more unified front on council in passing this,” Richards said by way explanation.Still, the motion to table the ordinance passed by a 3-2 vote, with council members Terry Paulson and Tom McCabe dissenting.An earlier move by council member Tony Hershey to amend the ordinance to include a broad range of “other activities which distract one’s attention” while driving was rejected by a 3-2 vote, with Richards and council members Jim Markalunas and Paulson voting against the amendment.Paulson originally introduced the idea of the ordinance, but said he doubted whether an education campaign would have any effect on cell phone use by drivers.”If education worked, we wouldn’t have the problems that we do,” he declared, specifically mentioning drunk driving and environmental degradation as two issues that have received plenty of “educational” exposure but continue to be problems.Had the ordinance come to a vote, however, it would have been approved. Richards, Paulson and Markalunas all said they were ready to approve it, before the mayor pressed for a delay in enacting the ban.The vote to table the ordinance came after nearly two hours of debate among council members, Aspen Police Chief Tom Stephenson, and an audience of people who were mostly opposed to the ordinance – although at least four of those who spoke against it are in the business of selling cell phones.Assistant City Attorney David Hoefer opened the discussion by stating that, according to certain studies, the use of cell phones while driving increases the risk of an accident.”A cell phone would be four times the risk,” he said. “A drunk driver would be five times,” meaning cell phone users are believed by some to be nearly as dangerous on the roads as drunk drivers.Citing an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, he said 35 million cell phone calls per day are made in the United States, involving 70 million “calling minutes.” The article, he said, indicated there are more than 1,700 car accidents involving cell phones, causing two deaths and injury to 317 people.But others in the room took the opposite view, citing studies that show no correlation between cell phone use by drivers and accidents involving those drivers.Representatives of two phone companies – AT&T and U S West – both argued against the ban.Rick Sullivan of AT&T noted that the Colorado Legislature considered a similar ban two years ago and rejected it, based in part on testimony from the Colorado State Patrol in opposition to the prohibition.He noted that the popular perception of a cell phone user in a car is “the fat cat, the rich person,” driving around looking important.But, he said, the fact is that more than 80 percent of cell phone users earn less than $100,000 a year, and that 36 percent earn less than $50,000 a year.Sullivan also offered the help of the cellular phone “industry,” but not AT&T specifically, in devising an educational campaign, and said the industry believes it is simply too early to start enacting prohibitions against the use of cell phones by drivers.Chief Stephenson argued against the proposed ban, noting that a poll of his officers showed no indication of more accidents involving cell phones, despite an “exponential increase in cell phone use” by drivers.He, along with others, expressed concern that the ban would be a problem for tourists and visitors who may not be aware of the law.
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