Sunday, December 7, 2008

Driving cell-phone rules

Fort Collins lawmakers consider pushing cell-phone rules

BY NATE TAYLOR • • December 4, 2008

Local lawmakers are considering pushing for tougher laws governing cell-phone use while driving.

Democratic Reps. John Kefalas and Randy Fischer said they've received phone calls and e-mails from residents following the death last week of 9-year-old Erica Forney of Fort Collins.

Police say Michelle Smith, 36, may have been distracted because she was talking on her mobile phone when she struck Forney with her Ford Expedition in the bike lane on Avondale Road in southwest Fort Collins.

Kefalas said he and Fischer are trying to decide if it makes sense to move forward in the process to create the legislation.

"Both Rep. Fischer and I are evaluating the information and want to do the right thing," Kefalas said, adding that sometimes tragedies bring issues to the surface

Colorado law currently has no restrictions on cell phone use, unless the driver holds a temporary instruction permit or a minor's instruction permit, in which case the driver cannot use a mobile device.

"As the state representative for the Forney's area, I have a responsibility to take the opportunity to learn from this and do what we can to make our roads safer in lots of different ways," said Fischer, who represents House District 53.

Police will meet with the Larimer District Attorney's Office today to discuss possible charges against Smith.

"I just want to make sure that there's no presumption that cell-phone usage was the cause of this tragic incident," Fischer said Tuesday after attending Erica's funeral service.

Study echoes concerns

Erica's death happened days before the University of Utah released the findings of a study indicating that drivers talking on a cell phone are "far more distracted" than drivers having a conversation with someone in the vehicle.

David Strayer, a professor of psychology at Utah, said the study was conducted for drivers traveling in cars at speeds ranging from 25 to 40 mph for city driving and 50 to 70 mph for highway driving.

"We found similar difficulties with vehicle control and increased crash risk in all cases," Strayer said.

Previous studies by Strayer and his colleagues have indicated that talking on a cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving a car with a blood alcohol content of .08, which is the legal limit for driving under the influence.

"Cell-phone conversations were every bit as distracting as someone who was drunk," Strayer said, adding that both acts made drivers four times more likely to be in an accident than those not intoxicated or on their cell phones.

State Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said cell-phone use while driving is approaching the level of drunken driving.

"We place a great deal of emphasis on drunk driving, and I don't believe cell phones reach quite that level of endangerment, but it may be getting close," Bacon said.

A previous study by Utah's Strayer found that driving while talking on a hands-free device is just as dangerous as driving while on a handheld device.

Fischer said his own research into other studies on the hands-free vs. handheld issue revealed similar findings.

"Even with a hands-free set you may have your eyes on the road but your mind is not on the road," Fischer said.

Uphill climb for lawmakers

Colorado legislators have tried unsuccessfully three times in the past four years to introduce legislation to create more stringent laws to punish drivers who use cell phones while driving.

Legislation introduced in 2004 and 2005 could have prohibited the use of mobile devices by all drivers, but in both instances the bill was stalled when it reached the House Transportation and Energy Committee.

A bill in 2007, which stalled in the same committee, would have doubled the penalties for a traffic violation that occurred while the driver was intentionally distracted.

Bacon said, if a bill does make progress, it will be up to him and his two colleagues in the House to speak up.

"Fischer, Kefalas and I need to make a statement that it has influenced our community greatly," he said.

Fischer said he knows what he's up against and conceded it may not be politically feasible to pass legislation that would prohibit cell-phone use.

He also said he could not speculate on what type of legislation might be presented, but he and Kefalas are considering laws other states have passed or attempted to pass. Fischer said six states have outlawed handheld cell-phone use and a few others have outlawed text messaging.

Bacon said any legislation that is drawn up needs to be financially feasible as well.

"If we have no money, what do we do? It's a matter that we're on a limited budget," Bacon said. "If it's going to cost a great deal of money, it's not going to go anywhere."

Bacon and Fischer both said education about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving is also important.


Published: December 3, 2008

SPRING HILL - Alessandra Augello was killed in a car crash three weeks ago.

The 17-year-old's parents are still trying to catch their breath from the sudden shock.

But even in the midst of their grief, Stephen and Agnes Augello are aware that action needs to be taken. They believe two lives could have been saved if a law was on the books that limited cell phone use while driving.

Solid figures on how many accidents are directly related to cell phone use are hard to come by. But at any given daylight moment in 2007 there were more than a million drivers using a handheld device on America's roads, according to a poll by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For Augello, that moment was 7:11 p.m. on Nov. 10. The Spring Hill teen was returning home from theater rehearsal at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School in Pasco County. She was traveling west on Hudson Avenue. Another car, driven by 19-year-old Alyssa Dyer, was coming in the other direction.

Troopers determined that Dyer's car crossed the center line into Augello's path. They both died at the scene.

Days later, Stephen Augello would learn at Dyer's funeral that she had sent a text message two minutes prior to the accident. Investigators can't say for certain that Dyer was using the phone at the time of the crash.

But it's plausible enough for Stephen Augello to know that something needs to be done. That "something" is Allie's Law, which would prohibit holding a cell phone while driving. Any talking would have to be done using an ear bud or a speaker.

That's the idea, anyway. For now, it's the beginnings of a movement. The Augellos have begun circulating a petition asking for support. It will soon be available on a Web site,

Getting it passed could be an uphill battle. Research shows that there were nine similar bills proposed in the 2008 session. None made it out of committee.

But two lawmakers contacted by Hernando Today had some hope.

Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, backed one of those failed bills. His district includes Augello's high school.

Legg's bill targeted "inexperienced" drivers, meaning motorists under the age of 18. It was intended as a small step towards issuing a law that would apply to all drivers, he said Tuesday.

Legg puts himself in the class of lawmakers against big government interfering in personal lives. But this is different.

"Your right to text ends when other people are dying or hurt because of negligence," he said.

His proposal isn't loaded with stiff sanctions. Possible penalties ranged from a point on a driver's license to several hours of community service for minors. Just the threat of punishment will be enough to deter motorists' cell phone use, Legg said.

The hang up comes from the telecommunications businesses. It's not that they're opposed to the legislation, but a law opens the door to liability issues and lawsuits, Legg said.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he would support "at a minimum" legislation that keeps minors from texting or using handheld devices while driving.

Like Legg, Fasano believes that a petition would carry a "tremendous amount of weight." He encourages the public to look at the issue, but warns that "it's not something that's going to change overnight."

The grandmother of the other victim in the crash, Betsy Carrion, is throwing her support behind the Augellos, calling the petition an "excellent" idea.

"I think it could be a deterrent," she said from her Hudson home. "I strongly recommend it."

Stephen Augello is aware of the past struggles to pass this type of legislation. But he doesn't find the odds insurmountable.

"I really think this is going to be the one," he said.

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Reporter Kyle Martin can be reached at 352-544-5271 or