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Taking cell phones for a test drive

Amid mounting pressure from safety advocates, a cell phone group says the devices aren't overly distracting to drivers.

Responding to mounting pressure to ban or limit the use of cell phones in automobiles, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association on Wednesday called for more research and a "balanced" solution to the driver-distraction problem.

"We need to educate drivers on the consequences of inattentiveness caused by a number of activities," Tom Wheeler, chief executive of the CTIA, said in a statement. "We also need to encourage more data collection to quantify the problem and effectively address what current studies are showing are causing the most problems--activities such as changing a CD or talking to other passengers."

The CTIA's statements attempted to deflect blame from the increasingly ubiquitous cell phone as safety advocates and politicians raise concern over its potential dangers.

On Monday, New York became the first state to pass legislation banning people from talking on handheld cell phones while driving. Gov. George Pataki is expected to sign the bill into law this week, and the ban would begin Nov. 1.

The bill calls for fines of up to $100 after a one-month grace period. Violators may have fines waved until the end of February if they present the judge with a receipt showing they bought a hands-free cell phone system.

The U.S. Congress is also considering a bill that would curtail cell phone use while driving, requiring people to dial, talk and listen via voice-activated, hands-free devices and headsets. Forty states have also considered similar limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The cell phone crusade is led by a number of politicians whose constituents have been in accidents because of driver distraction. After her toddler daughter died in a 1999 cell phone-related crash, Pennsylvania resident Patricia Pena became an outspoken safety advocate and is urging politicians to pass a complete ban on cell phone use while driving.

The movement to ban phones in New York--where everyone from stockbrokers to cabbies gab on their cell phones--began in Brooklyn in 1996, when New York state assembly member Felix Ortiz saw a woman crash into a pole. Ortiz asked if the woman was drunk. She said she hadn't been drinking, but she was fidgeting with a cell phone at the time of the crash.

The CTIA's statements also come a day after supermodel Niki Taylor was released from the hospital after suffering life-threatening injuries eight weeks ago. The 26-year-old Cover Girl cosmetics spokeswoman and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, who left an Atlanta hospital for a private rehabilitation center Tuesday, suffered severe damage to her liver in April when she and two friends struck a utility pole in a 1993 Nissan Maxima.

At the time, 27-year-old driver Chad Renegar said he glanced down to answer his cell phone and ran off the road. Although Taylor has been recuperating in a private hospital since the accident and has not made any statements about cell phone use, her case has become a flashpoint in the national debate about a potential ban on the devices.

But the CTIA says that such concern is largely unwarranted.

Accompanying Wheeler's comments and the CTIA's statement was research by the American Automobile Association, which determined in May that wireless phones were not among the top five contributing factors in auto accidents. From the more than 32,000 accidents analyzed, wireless phones contributed to 1.5 percent of accidents, according to the AAA research.

The most distracting was an outside object, person or event, which contributed to 29.4 percent of accidents analyzed. AAA also determined that cassette or CD players were more distracting than cell phones, resulting in 11.4 percent of accidents analyzed. Distractions from another occupant in the vehicle, such as a chatty passenger or baby, contributed to 10.9 percent of accidents. Eating or drinking contributed to 1.7 percent, according to the AAA study.

Although it didn't concede that the cell phone could be a distraction, the CTIA also noted Wednesday that it has been actively promoting "responsible use of wireless phones" through a campaign dubbed "Safety--Your Most Important Call."

The CTIA also said cell phones might increase the safety of automobiles because of their ability to connect drivers and passengers with hospitals, ambulances and emergency contacts during an accident, storm or other catastrophe. The international group, which represents carriers, manufacturers and wireless Internet providers, said the cell phone is instrumental to the advancement of so-called mayday technology.