Cell phone safety push heating up
In just over two months, Aspen citizens will learn whether the city will ban the use of cellular telephones by drivers navigating the city’s streets.Supporters of the ban claim that when drivers use cell phones, they pose a hazard to themselves, other motorists and pedestrians because their attention is not focused on the road.Those who don’t want that ban to go into effect have gone into promotional high gear with a public relations campaign focused on the argument that cell phone use is no more distracting than any number of other activities drivers routinely engage in while on the move.A coalition of wireless phone firms have mounted an “educational campaign” aimed at convincing the Aspen City Council that the industry has done all it can in terms of discouraging unsafe driving habits that might or might not involve the use of a cell phone.Last November, the council narrowly gave initial approval to an ordinance making it illegal to be talking on or dialing a cell phone while driving a car. Certain exceptions would apply, such as the use of a “hands-free” cell phone, or making a call to emergency service agencies.But after a meeting with cell phone company representatives, and hearing from some locals who oppose the new law, the City Council held off on final adoption.The ban was put on hold until early May, to give AT&T Wireless and other cellular phone advocates time to mount a campaign to convince hand-held cell phone users not to use the devices when they’re driving down the road.Ads have been running in local newspapers that, though they say nothing specifically about the use of cell phones while driving, do urge motorists to drive safely.Specifically, the ads urge drivers to “buckle up, keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, do not engage in stressful or emotional distractions while driving, do not let anything inside the car distract you from driving safely – especially in hazardous driving conditions.”The ads also offer a “free ski week for the 2000-2001 ski season” to the winner of a raffle to be held in May.According to published reports, in the last five years lawmakers in 30 states have proposed legislation banning cell phone use while driving, and 22 bills are being considered this year.So far, none have passed at the state level, but three cities and the governments of 13 foreign countries have put bans in place.One of the cities, Hilltown, Penn., reportedly passed its ban after a two-year-old girl was killed in a two-car crash involving a car that ran a stop sign while its driver was dialing on his cell phone.Some police agencies have opposed the idea of the ban, arguing that enforcement would be difficult and would tie up police resources.Former Aspen Police Chief Tom Stephenson argued against the proposed ban at a public hearing last November, 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.The sponsor of Aspen’s proposed ban, Councilman Terry Paulson, said last week that he remains committed to the cause.Concerning the ad campaign, Paulson asked, “I wonder how are we going to know if this is effective or not? I think the education campaign is kind of bogus.”Rick Sullivan, director of government relations for AT&T Wireless and the architect of the educational campaign, said he will soon broaden the ad blitz to include local radio and television stations.Noting that the ads do not mention cell phone use, he said the intent is to promote better driving habits in general.As for assessing the effectiveness of the effort, he said the number of responses to the free-skiing offer should be an indication.But that’s not the main issue, he said: “It’s the visibility of the ads.”He added that a national campaign of the same sort will begin in May, to correspond with what he termed “Cellular Safety Week.”Sullivan met with the City Council to go over the campaign strategy in January, and will be back in March, he said.
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