Road Worrier

Poll finds support for cell-phone restrictions

Staff WriterFebruary 22, 2010 

North Carolina voters agree by more than four to one that the legislature should enact tougher restrictions on cell phone use for drivers - or ban it altogether.

Asked in a News & Observer / ABC11 Eyewitness News poll last week to assess laws on phoning and driving, only 10 percent of respondents supported current state law.

North Carolina banned text messaging for all drivers last year. Talking on cell phones is legal for all drivers except those under 18 or driving school buses.

Forty percent of poll respondents said the state should allow hands-free phoning but should outlaw hand-held phones for drivers. And 47 percent favored a ban on all cell phone use for all drivers.

"People drive erratically while they're trying to do that," said Hannah Gathings, 63, of Raleigh. "They slow down. They speed up. They're not concentrating on their driving.

"That makes them dangerous. If you're following them, you don't know what to expect."

While many respondents agree that phone use is distracting for drivers, some are not sure how to tackle the problem.

"You can't look down at your phone and enter things while you're driving," said Julianne McElroy of Charlotte, 40. "You can't. You're going to hit somebody. But I think that is a personal responsibility."

McElroy opposes new cell phone laws. She doesn't think they would be enforced.

"I see teens using the phone driving all the time, and I see people driving and texting. But I don't ever see policemen pulling them over," McElroy said.

Doris Fields, 61, of Siler City, who favors a ban, said she keeps her phone in her pocketbook when she drives.

"I hardly ever use my phone unless I have a breakdown or something, and I need to make a call," Fields said.

She remembers a driver who approached her car at a traffic light recently.

"It had been red for a few seconds, and this guy in his pickup was talking on his cell phone," Fields said. "And he just ran the red light as pretty as you've ever seen. Luckily, nobody else was coming."

State Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat who has advocated cell phone restrictions in the past, said he would try again in 2011 if he is re-elected in November. This year's legislative session is limited to state budget issues.

"The poll results should help change the debate at the General Assembly," Luebke said. "My guess is that a bill allowing only hands-free cell phone use would have a better chance than a complete ban."

A traffic safety scientist in Chapel Hill said he wasn't surprised to see strong sentiment among North Carolinians for tougher restrictions.

"It's definitely a consistent finding in our research," said Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. "Most people agree that cell phone use, certainly hand-held phone use, should be prohibited."

Still, some drivers feel safe using Bluetooth or other hands-free gadgets to talk while they drive.

Lee White was driving in downtown Raleigh when he answered a call from a reporter.

"Hold on while I switch to my hands-free unit," said White, 52, of Apex.

He chuckled when the reporter sought his ideas about laws to restrict phoning while driving.

Hand-held phones are too dangerous, White said. But he said he feels safe with both hands on the wheel while he drives.

"I'm by myself a lot of the time. I can call my mother and chat with her. Sometimes I'll tell her, 'Hold on - I need to pay attention to this while I'm driving.'

"Obviously, I think they should allow hands-free," White said. "Otherwise, it should be against the law."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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