The New York county that could be considered Cell Phone Central -- home of the Hamptons and other enclaves where the phones are as popular on the playground as they are at poolside -- has moved to curb the use of the phones in cars.
In a 12-6 vote, the Suffolk County Legislature made driving with a hand-held cell phone a crime, carrying a $150 fine.
Suffolk is believed to be the nation's first county -- and its largest entity, with about 1.4 million inhabitants -- to adopt such a ban. Similar ordinances have been passed recently in Marlboro, N.J.; Brooklyn, Ohio; and three towns in Pennsylvania. A similar bill is under consideration in Westchester County, and at least 13 nations, including Britain, Israel, Italy and Australia, have a ban.
The laws have been prompted by a conviction among lawmakers -- based on local accidents and some research -- that drivers using cell phones are distracted from their driving and are more likely to harm themselves and others.
Emergency calls exempted
The Suffolk bill prohibits the use of a cell phone while driving unless it is equipped with an earpiece or can act like a speaker-phone, leaving the drivers' hands free. Emergency calls are exempted from the ban. People are allowed to dial while driving, and to hit a button to answer incoming calls, as long as they do not drive while holding a phone. Research on the dangers of cell phone use in cars is scant, as many law enforcement agencies do not yet collect data on whether use of a cell phone contributed to an accident. A 1997 Canadian study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, found that the risk of an accident increases fourfold if the driver is on a cell phone.
But Suffolk's cry of "Don't hold the phone" met with rolling eyes in the Hamptons.
"Someone is reckless as a driver with or without a cell phone," said Julie Keyes, owner of the Keyes-Robbins Art Gallery in Sag Harbor. "It's a Band-Aid on cancer."
Anne Megyas, a photographer, yoga instructor and cell-phone owner, said she did not believe it was possible to regulate people's behavior so closely.
"People need cell-phone availability in their cars for safety reasons, professional reasons and to maintain contact with child care providers," said Megyas, a part-time resident of Sag Harbor.
But some see the danger in driving while using a cell phone, especially in the Hamptons.
`Talking about dinner'
"There are too many people with too much money talking unnecessarily," said Dr. Shawn P. Cannon of East Hampton. "Half the population in the Hamptons is driving around talking about dinner reservations."
Marek Janota of East Hampton, a 21-year-old college student and plumber, said he thought the ban would hurt his business.
"I don't think they should pass it because I spend a lot of time driving, and part of my business is being on the cell phone and talking to customers," he said.
The Suffolk Legislature has a certain bent for banning things. In 1984, it adopted one of the first and most restrictive bans on smoking in public places. Within the last year it banned the sale to minors of herbal cigarettes and laser pointers, and passed a law allowing the police to place "boots" on the car wheels of parents who were behind in child support payments.
New York and 26 other states have considered bills banning the use of cell phones while driving, but none have passed, said Melissa Savage, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, Colo. Some who raise questions about the cell-phone ban say a crackdown is needed on all forms of driver distractions, including reading newspapers, applying makeup, trying to settle children and managing pets.
Kevin Moore, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, praised the New Jersey Senate's move last month to create a task force to study driver distraction.
"We do favor that approach, to look at all distractions, whether or not people are properly using their cell phone or fumbling putting a cassette into their tape deck or reading at the wheel," he said.