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CNN Today

First County-Wide Ban of Driving While Cellular Instated in Suffolk County, New York

Aired October 4, 2000 - 2:21 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Like it or not, the ubiquitous cell phone is here to stay. Since their introduction, concern has been growing, though, over the hazards of using them while driving. In response, local bans have sprung up in New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Last night, the legislature of affluent Suffolk County, New York, approved the first county-wide ban.

Joining us now by phone to talk about the decision is the county police commissioner John Gallagher.

Why the ban, commissioner?

JOHN GALLAGHER, SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE COMMISSIONER: Well, I think what happened was the concern -- growing concern on the part of certain legislators, based on reports they were reading and statistics that were being fed to them, that the cell phone had become fixed in their mind as as much of a danger to safe driving as other activities that were certainly considered unsafe for driving, such as consuming alcohol or reading a paper while you're driving or trying to work some kind of a tape deck and looking away from the wheel.

So one of the legislators decided to introduce this legislation into the local county format as a way of trying to make driving a little bit safer on our roads.

WATERS: You are correct; I see a 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of an accident -- was almost as dangerous as being drunk behind the wheel.

So, with a report like that, and your ban, do you plan to aggressively enforce this, and how are you going to do that?

GALLAGHER: Well, right now, we, the police, are just trying to figure out how we are going to enforce it, though I think one of the first things we have to be careful of is this is a county where we get a tremendous influx of tourism every summer. This is the county of the world famous Hamptons.

And we're 1.3 million, 1.4 million population, I guess, right now, but we add significantly to that in the summer months. And bringing people in who are not familiar with the ban is going to cause, certainly, a certain amount of confusion, and a certain amount of, I think, consternation on the part of the driver when they're pulled over for using a hand-held cell phone.

So I'm urging the legislature to put some sort of effort into, you know, education campaigns, both from our own residents and for visitors coming into the county -- at the borders of the county, some kind of signs that will let them know you can't use a cell phone that takes your hand away from the wheel while you're in Suffolk County.

WATERS: And when you write that first ticket for driving with a cell phone against your ear, what's the damage?

GALLAGHER: The damage will be, if they're found guilty, a $150 fine.

WATERS: And do you expect -- I understand that there will be exceptions made if it's an emergency telephone call. But I imagine you would have to prepare yourself for all the emergencies that your officers will be told about once they stop a driver with a hand-held phone.

GALLAGHER: I believe you're absolutely right. I think that there's going to be an awful lot of people making emergency calls when they're pulled over.

Unfortunately for them, and thank God for the way the law was written for us, we are not the judge and jury in that case. We just issue the summons and then they have to provide what's known as an affirmative defense. They have to go and tell it to the court.

WATERS: I see that this ban on the cell phones won't take effect until January. Why the wait?

If this is so dangerous, why wouldn't it go into effect immediately?

GALLAGHER: I think legislator John Cooper, who was the sponsor of the legislation, I think, wisely so, said that as much as it's an issue of safety, the fact is, if we don't educate the public, we're only going to get more confusion and resentment.

So I think what he's trying to do is give people time to go out and get some kind of attachments for their cell phones that they now have -- that they can attach. As long as they can attach them -- to the extent that they can use them without using their hands while they're driving, they're OK. They're legal.

So I think he's asking people to take time to do that; and also, for us to get out as a police agency and the county government in general -- and just get that message out to everybody, both our residents and people coming into the county -- that this is a new law which will be taking effect the 1st of the year.

WATERS: And I think a lot of folks around the nation will be looking at the success of your program there in Suffolk County.

We thank you so much, police commissioner John Gallagher, for taking the time to explain that to us. GALLAGHER: Thank you.

WATERS: Good luck, sir.

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