A large, deep scar runs vertically across Andrew Dunne’s stomach. The local bicyclist was riding through a school zone when a driver on a cell phone made a right turn and hit him. Dunne’s spleen was removed and his medical bills amounted to $100,000.
The driver, meanwhile, walked away without so much as a citation, according to Dunne.
Dunne stood behind a podium and recounted his story at a Committee of the Whole meeting held May 12. He testified in support of a bill that would outlaw the use of handheld electronic devices while driving in Maui County. The amended bill was unanimously passed, and will now be considered by the County Council next month. If the bill is passed, it will take effect July 1.
“When I proposed the bill, the number one issue was safety,” said Councilmember Joseph Pontanilla.
The ordinance received overwhelming support from testifiers, the Council, Maui County police and the prosecutor’s office. Barring some unforeseen twist, it will become law. On the surface, this seems like a cut-and-dried case. Similar laws have already been passed on Oahu and the Big Island; it was only a matter of time before Maui followed suit. But, despite its popularity and perceived inevitability, there are questions surrounding the ban. Such as: do we really need it?
Ubiquitous as they are, handheld electronic devices aren’t the only thing that distracts drivers. Grabbing a quick cheeseburger on the way to work, applying lipstick in the rearview mirror before a date, changing a CD and even reading or watching movies in the car are all common occurrences that can be just as distracting—and just as deadly.
And there already exists a law concerning inattentive drivers. Section 291-12 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes states that a fine of no more than $1,000 is applicable to “Whoever operates any vehicle without due care or in a manner as to cause a collision with, or injury or damage to, as the case may be, any person, vehicle or other property.” Isn’t that broad enough to allow cops to pull over people who are gabbing on their phones?
The new bill is meant to be preventative, according to Councilmember Mike Victorino. It aims to prevent an accident before it can happen, while the current law is concerned with the aftermath of an accident caused by inattentive drivers, he said in an interview.
Outlawing handheld electronic devices is a step to raise awareness about how drivers use phones to hold conversations, send text messages or read e-mails, according to Victorino. Drivers may also become more aware of other distractions and will avoid fiddling with the radio or wait until they get home to eat that burger. At least that’s the idea.
“I’m not sure how far we have to legislate common sense to people,” Victorino said. “That’s the real challenge we face.”
Saving lives, preventing injuries and avoiding costly repairs are intended results of the bill, said Victorino. “If we save one life, one injury, one accident, then it would be a bill that was well worth it,” he said.
Using a cell phone takes more attention off the road than other distractions, according to Committee of the Whole Chairman Mike Molina. “When you eat or drink, your attention is taken for just a moment. But when you are on the phone talking your brain is engaged differently,” Molina said. “It takes a lot more brain power.”
Under the bill, the first citation will cost a driver no more than $100. Subsequent citations can reach up to $250. Hitting people in the pocketbook is one way to make them pay attention, according to Victorino.
The law doesn’t ban hands-free devices, such as Bluetooth systems. Cell phones may also be used to call 9-11, while two-way radios will be allowed for some businesses, such as taxi services. Meanwhile, some portable navigation systems will be outlawed and drivers with a learner’s permit or provisional license will not be able to use even hands-free devices.
The exemption of hands-free devices seems like a good compromise, but studies show that hands-free devices require just as much brain power. The National Safety Council compiled research findings from more than 30 studies into a white paper released in March. “Drivers using hands-free and handheld cell phones have a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects,” the white paper reported. “Estimates indicate drivers using cell phones look at but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment.”
Wendy Kaulia, a Kula resident, currently uses a hands-free device for business calls when driving. In her opinion, carrying a conversation with either device is equally distracting. “Your mind is not on your driving or the car in front of you or the car beside you or the bicyclist or the pedestrian,” she said. “It’s distracting.”
Hands never have to leave the wheel with devices such as Bluetooth, Victorino argued. The current bill also acts as a place to start, he said, and amendments can be made as necessary.
In the end, supporters emphasize, this is about safety.
“Our society has become so accustomed to modern conveniences that we have forgotten about the basics of driver safety,” said Molina.
Another testifier at the Committee of the Whole meeting, Mike Moran, said that he uses his phone while driving for business purposes, but believes that the inconvenience the bill will produce does not outweigh the risk of someone being injured or killed. “We are on Maui,” he said. “We can slow down a little bit to do things.”