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Safety Harbor mayor proposes cell phone ban for drivers

SAFETY HARBOR — This small town of 17,800 made a splash years ago with its famous mineral springs.

Now it may make its mark again as the first town in Florida to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

Mayor Andy Steingold proposed the ordinance this week and asked City Attorney Alan Zimmet to find out if the city has the authority to enact such a regulation.

He also wants a ban on texting while operating a motor vehicle.

"It's a scary day when statistically you're more prone to be in an accident while using a cell phone than if you're drunk,'' he said. "It seems as if we're fooling ourselves by not taking any action to secure motorists from distracted (drivers).''

In calling for a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving, the National Safety Council earlier this year cited a Harvard Center for Risk Analysis study that concluded "cell phone use contributes to an estimated 6 percent of all crashes." That equates to 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year, the study said.

It's unclear how Steingold's ordinance would be enforced.

Since Safety Harbor doesn't have a police force, it contracts with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement. Steingold said he would hope deputies would ticket violators if the ordinance passed.

Kevin Bakewell, senior vice president of AAA Auto Club South, said he is "not aware of any local government entity in the state of Florida that bans the use of cell phones while driving, nor do I believe that local governments have the authority to do this. Traffic laws are in the state domain.''

Steingold, a lawyer, is the first to admit he talks on his cell phone while driving. But he said he uses a hands-free system.

He conceded there's not much distinction, but said "it would not be widely acceptable to completely ban cell phone use during the operation of a motor vehicle.''

Robin Fornino, who is running for a City Commission seat, isn't opposed to the plan. She said she almost got into an accident while talking to her mother on the phone while cruising down the street. The near-miss scared her.

"I would support it even though I like to answer the phone,'' she said. "I think in general it's a good idea.''

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Safety Harbor mayor proposes cell phone ban for drivers 02/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 10:16pm]
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