Sunday, January 20, 2002

Hawaii should ban
use of cell phones
while driving

The issue: A driver who lost
control of his vehicle while answering
a cell-phone has been placed on
probation for negligent homicide.

A 25-year-old Honolulu man accepts responsibility for the traffic death of Nancy Phongsavath, but the blame is more properly placed on Hawaii's failure to stop drivers from talking on cellular telephones when they should be concentrating on the road. More tragedy lies ahead unless the state imposes restrictions on this lethal distraction.


Ryan Miguel says he had picked up his daughter from school on the afternoon of Aug. 22, 2000, when he answered the hand-held cell phone that his employer, an air-conditioning company, had assigned to him. At that very minute, Miguel, who recalls feeling ill at the time, lost control of the company van, according to police and phone records.

The van sideswiped a parked car and ran onto a sidewalk, striking three girls, plowed through a chain-link fence and hedge and landed in the garage of a Kalihi home. Nancy was killed and her 11-year-old sister Hilovelyn remains in a coma. A 13-year-old friend has recovered from injuries.

Miguel pleaded no contest to third-degree negligent homicide, a misdemeanor. He was ordered to perform community service but sentenced to no jail time. If he stays out of trouble during a one-year probationary period, he will end up with no criminal record. A civil lawsuit filed by the Phongsavath family has been settled out of court.

Reports of accidents caused by cell-phone distraction have prompted some companies to restrict cell-phone use by employees while on the road. "Safely operating a motor vehicle requires a driver's total attention," Dupont Co. warns in a personnel policy that looks out for the company's liability.

Last June, New York became the first state to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, and similar curbs have been proposed in most other states, including Hawaii. Twenty-three countries, including Japan, Israel, Portugal and Singapore, restrict or forbid the use of cell phones by drivers in moving vehicles.

Study after study has confirmed that talking on cell phones while driving is much more dangerous than listening to the radio or conversing with a passenger.

University of Utah researchers concluded that hands-free cell phones are as distracting as hand-held phones; the distraction is caused by the driver's active engagement in a conversation rather than the manipulating of the phone. However, a ban on using hand-held phones while driving would be a worthwhile beginning for Hawaii legislators.

An unsatisfactory
settlement ends state’s
gasoline suit

The issue: The state government
has settled for $20 million a lawsuit
alleging price-fixing by oil companies
that serve Hawaii.

The settlement of the state's price-fixing lawsuit against five oil companies will probably add a few million dollars to lean coffers but otherwise abandons consumers to the dictates of gasoline producers. It is unlikely that new laws or regulatory measures would affect the local market even if policy makers were inclined to impose them.

Consumers do have recourse -- their buying power. If drivers shop for the cheapest gasoline, their efforts, however cumbersome, would send a message to the oil companies. Retailers who sell gasoline at fair prices would be rewarded and gasoline producers would be served notice that consumers are keeping their eyes on the pump.


Why the state opted to settle the suit filed in 1998 against Chevron Corp., Texaco Inc., Tosco Corp., Shell Oil Co. and Unocal Corp. remains unclear. Although the state had said it had evidence to show that competing companies were sharing local wholesale prices, skepticism from the court may have led the state to settle rather than go to trial and possibly lose.

The state's effort could be counted as worthwhile if legislators and the administration examine the companies' court filings for whatever information can be gleaned. They should press for continuing access to company records to prevent a recurrence of the rip-off. However, Attorney General Earl Anzai says the state will probably stop investigating and lawmakers have not suggested they will pick up the ball.

Details of the settlement are still under wraps, but the Star-Bulletin has learned that the companies together will pay the state $20 million. The amount is a pittance compared with the $2 billion sought in the lawsuit and a small percentage of the estimated $81 million one analyst estimates the companies overcharged consumers in a 14-month period.

Attorney's fees will further reduce the settlement by $4 million. The state would do well to pump the remainder into the ailing economy through highway projects since there is no equitable way to return the money to consumers.

With the settlement, the allegation of price-fixing by the oil companies may never be determined. What is clear is that Hawaii has been a profitable market for gasoline producers. Court documents filed showed that Chevron sold only 3 percent of its national gasoline volume in Hawaii, yet 23 percent of its U.S. profits were generated here.

Fair or not, producers will charge what the market will bear. No number of lawsuits will change the limitations geography places on a captive market. So electing to buy the cheapest gas they can find remains the consumers only choice.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

Richard Halloran, editorial page director, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, contributing editor 294-3533;

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (USPS 249460) is published daily by
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