Sunday, April 22, 2001


One girl is dead; another in a coma.
Was the driver who ran them down answering
his cell phone when he lost control of his van?
As the death and injury tolls mount across
the nation, studies show that driving while
talking on cell phones is dangerous
at any speed.

By Lee Catterall

A TELEPHONE CALL that Ryan Miguel received one afternoon last August may have been one he wishes he had not answered.

A 12-year-old girl is dead and her 10-year-old friend lies in a coma after being struck on a sidewalk in Kalihi by a wayward van with Miguel behind the wheel as he took the call on a cellular telephone, according to identical times cited in phone records and the Honolulu police report.

The accident highlights a controversy over phoning while driving that has grown in recent years with the explosion of cellular telephone usage across the country. This issue is distinct from other controversies surrounding cell-phones, such as possible hazards to health or annoying conversations in public places.

Ray Magliozzi, co-host with brother Tom as Click and Clack of the popular National Public Radio show "Car Talk," denounces usage of cell phones while driving as "immoral, unethical, inconsiderate and downright stupid."

Mug shot Proponents of cell phones say the benefits of cell phones far outweigh their risks, which they contend are minimal. They point to business executives able to communicate while on the move, of parents and children staying in better contact, of getting help if a car breaks down on the road.

Even so, Illinois is on the verge of becoming the first state to ban hand-held cell phones while driving. Similar legislation has been proposed but not yet passed in 36 other states. A handful of municipalities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts have banned using hand-held cell phones while driving.

In Hawaii, the Legislature had four bills restricting phone usage before it during this session, but none seems likely to pass despite the mounting evidence that phones are dangerous when used while a vehicle is in motion.

TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Nancy Phongsavath and sisters Switzer and Hilovelyn Luab were walking home from school last Aug. 22 when a van belonging to AMV Air Conditioning and driven by Miguel, 23, went out of control. Police said the van swerved off Kamehameha IV Road near Kalihi Housing, sideswiped a parked car and ran onto the sidewalk, striking the three girls. The van then plowed through a chain-link fence and hedge, finally landing in the garage of a Kalihi home.

Phongsavath was killed in the accident. Switzer Luab, 12, was injured and her 10-year-old sister Hilovelyn remains in a coma at a Honolulu convalescent center, said Luab family attorney David Turk.

A police officer remarked after the accident that Miguel had been distracted "doing what many other drivers do on a daily basis," but did not elaborate.

Turk said phone records of the hand-held cell phone belonging to AMV and assigned to Miguel show an incoming call was answered at 4:25 p.m. on the day of the accident. Police reports give the time of the accident, and also the time it was reported, as 4:25 p.m.

Turk said, however, the possibility that the time given in the police report was an approximation makes it impossible to arrive at a hard-and-fast conclusion. "I can't prove that he was on the phone at the time of the accident," he said. "I can't say with precision when the accident was."

The phone records identified the origin of the 4:25 call, but Turk declined to reveal it except to say the call was not made from the AMV business.

Flowers and a doll with a message scrawled across its forehead were
left next to bent railing posts at the site where Nancy Phongsavath
was killed and two sisters injured last August in Kalihi when a
van ran off Kamehameha IV Road.

Melvyn Miyagi, Miguels attorney, declined to comment on whether his client had been using the cell phone at the time of the accident. Turk said he has not sought to question Miguel in a deposition because of the likelihood that he would refrain from answering in lieu of the possibility of criminal charges. Miguel has not been charged. Police say the accident is still under investigation.

"Mr. Miyagi is doing what a prudent defense attorney would do and not give any information which conceivably could be used against his client," Turk said.

Criminal charges arising from a fatal traffic accident involving a cellular phone would not be a first. A driver was using a cell phone in November 1999 while running a stop sign and broadsiding a family car in Pennsylvania, killing 2-year-old Morgan Lee Pena. After learning that the driver causing the accident faced only a $50 fine and two traffic tickets, mother Patricia Pena became an advocate for laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones in cars.

In December, a Maryland judge acquitted Jason Jones, a Naval Academy midshipman, of manslaughter but convicted him of negligent driving for crashing into a car on a roadside, killing a couple who had parked to let their child go to the bathroom.

Jones was using a cell phone while traveling at a high speed, prosecutors said. The judge fined Jones $500 and four points on his driver's license.

The number of traffic accidents related to cell-phone use is a matter of speculation. Only six states -- Minnesota, Oklahoma, Montana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Tennessee -- even have policies of keeping track of such occurrences. Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, estimates that 600 to 1,000 people a year die in cell phone-related traffic accidents.

Mug shot Using a cell phone while driving is unquestionably distracting, but the question is how much. A 14-month study published four years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the risk of a collision when using a cell phone quadrupled -- about the same effect as legal intoxication.

In February, a study by the University of Montreal's Transportation Safety Laboratory concluded that cell phone users had a 38 percent higher risk of accident than non-users, and that the risk increased with the frequency of calls.

EAST OAHU State Rep. William Stonebraker (R-Kalama Valley, Hawaii Kai, Portlock) says he introduced a bill to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving in Hawaii after finding it easier to use a cell phone equipped with an ear piece than "having my hand at my head." Also, Stonebraker learned during a visit to his wife's homeland of Israel that it had such a law. Israel is one of 22 countries that restrict or forbid the use of cell phones in moving vehicles.

While 24 House members signed on to Stonebraker's bill or two similar ones, the proposals died early in this legislative session, as did a Senate bill proposed by Sen. Rod Tam (D-Downtown, Nuuanu).

Stonebraker, a Republican, said his bill seemed to draw little interest, and he described himself as a reluctant advocate. "My principle is less government and less intrusion," he said, "and I know that mandating the use of an ear piece is counter to that."

However, the proposal is so modest that even Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless company, last October agreed to support the Illinois legislation imposing "hands free" requirements on cell phone use by drivers.

"It's a national program," said Sherrie Coronas of Verizon Wireless in Hawaii. "The company believes it's an important issue that needs to be addressed."

CELL-PHONE opponents contend that such a ban should include all cell phones, not just those that are hand-held. Studies conducted in the United States, Great Britain and Japan have concluded that even hands-free cell phones carry a risk, according to a report by Matt Sundeen, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The basic conclusion of the studies," Sundeen said in a legislative report, "is that the distraction of the call, not the actual act of dialing, impairs a driver's ability to safely operate the vehicle."

While the danger could grow as more people use cell phones, so will the economic benefits. More than 111 million Americans -- nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population -- use cellular phones, and 46,000 new customers sign up for cell phones every day, according to industry statistics. An American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Institution study last October estimated that consumers would have to be paid $25 billion to be fairly compensated for the loss of convenience and business if they were not allowed to use their cell phones while driving.

"Car Talk's" Magliozzi brothers scoff at such defenses of cell phones.

"The problem here," they testified to the Illinois legislature, "is that the benefits are always in units of convenience and productivity while the costs are in units of injuries and people's lives. We need to ask these critics and ourselves: 'How much convenience is your child's life worth?'"

Industry defendants of cell phones point to preliminary results of a study by the AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety to bolster their contention that cell phones create relatively little distraction. The study found that 2 percent of 26,000 traffic accidents were caused by distractions from cell phones.

MORE FREQUENT causes were outside distractions (19.7 percent), eating and drinking (18.8 percent), adjusting radio dials, cassettes or CDs (11.4 percent), other occupants in the vehicle (9.4 percent) and moving objects in the vehicle (3.2 percent).

However, when industry officials maintain that cellular phones are no more distracting than, say, spilling coffee, putting on lipstick or lighting a cigarette, Tom and Ray Magliozzi agree.

The Click-and-Clack brothers suggest establishing "a ban on any behavior that dangerously detracts from a driver's attention to driving, and make it include, but not be limited to, talking on a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle," regardless of whether the cell phone is hand-held.

As car manufacturers begin equipping their products with cell phones, fax machines, Internet connections and who knows what other contrivances, such a ban may encompass an endless array of distractions.

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