AUGUSTA – A woman eight months’ pregnant rear-ended the car Ronald Collins was driving because she was distracted by the cell phone pressed to her ear.

The state representative from Wells, who has sat on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee for the past six years, said he was finally ready to vote in favor of a bill that would outlaw the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers.

“I think it’s timely,” he said during a public hearing on the proposed measure Tuesday. “I’ve dragged my feet not voting for this in the past. This time I intend to vote for it.”

Rep. Deborah Pelletier-Simpson, D-Auburn, who sponsored the perennial bill, told the committee that more drivers than ever are dialing from behind the wheel, posing a public hazard on the roadways to themselves and other motorists.

“I feel like it’s an accident waiting to happen,” she said.

In a recent newsletter to policy holders, her insurance company cited a statistic that made her cringe, she said. From 1998 to 2002, roughly 300,000 car crashes were attributed to cell phone use, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, she said. And those are only the self-reported numbers, she added.

Committee member Rep. George Hogan Sr., D-Old Orchard Beach, who signed on to the bill, said Maine is not alone in considering passage of a law. Nearly all 50 states debated proposed legislation last year. Municipalities in at least seven states have passed ordinances banning use of cell phones by drivers, he said.

“Today’s mobile phones can take, send and receive pictures,” he said. “They can surf the Web, get stock quotes and check the weather forecast, all of this in addition to the distracting conversations, scrolling and dialing that is required just to make a call.”

He recalled stopping behind a school bus when an oncoming car failed to stop in time, coming to a halt halfway past the length of the bus.

“Sure enough,” he said. “She was on a cell phone.”

But wireless phone company representatives argued cell phones are just one among many driver distractions.

Dan Riley, a Portland lobbyist for Nextel Communications and Sprint, said that while the number of cell phone users has shot up, accidents have not kept pace, suggesting that a smaller percentage of motorists on cell phones are involved in accidents.

In fact, he said, a report by AAA and the University of North Carolina showed that cell phone use contributed to only 1.5 percent of the 32,000 accidents they studied. By contrast, he said, adjusting the radio, cassette or CD contributed to 11.4 percent of those accidents.

“It’s simply not as big a problem as the media would have you believe,” he said.

Riley said cell phone use by motorists is important for Maine’s economy, as noted by Gov. John Baldacci in his State of the State address last month. Baldacci said he planned to push for more cell phone towers in Maine in an effort to improve signal coverage.

Their use is also playing a greater role in safety, Riley said. More than 43 million 911 calls are made each year from wireless phones, he said.

Written testimony from a Verizon Wireless spokesman said that if the state passes a law, it should be the same in every community. It also should exempt anyone making an emergency call.

And the law ought to be phased in over time to give cell phone users a chance to update their phones with hands-free devices.

As written, the bill would exempt certain drivers, including doctors, turnpike workers and drivers of authorized emergency vehicles. A minimum $50 fine would be imposed.

Hands-free operation would be allowed under the proposed law, despite a study by the New England Journal of Medicine that apparently found no statistical difference in distraction rates between drivers using hand-held phones and those using hands-free operation.

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