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Debate over drivers, phones to intensify

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SEATTLE — Although New York state has so far acted alone in banning drivers from using hand-held cellular telephones, many state legislatures are ready to rethink the issue next year, reflecting a sharpening debate over how much of a distraction and safety hazard the phones represent.

Flush with victory in New York and in more than two dozen local jurisdictions and armed with polls suggesting wide support, advocates of the bans say they will push for the laws when most legislatures return in January.

But while the campaign will intensify the debate, whether it will lead to new laws is uncertain.

Measures to ban or restrict drivers' use of the hand-held phones were introduced in 43 states this year, a record, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But most were killed in committee before June, when New York's action added momentum to the movement. "Once New York passed its ban, that lent a lot of credibility to the whole issue," said Mark Miloscia, a Democrat in Washington state who proposed a ban that died before New York acted. "I kept hearing, 'Well, nobody else has done it, so we shouldn't be leading the way.' That's all changed now."

In many states, the measures stalled amid lobbying by the wireless phone industry and by other industries that depend on mobile phones. About 121 million cellular phones are in use in the United States. Opponents of the bans say they will work just as hard next year. "Those are some pretty strong lobbyists — AT&T, Ameritech, Sprint, MCI," said state Rep. Bob Bugielski of Illinois, a Democrat, who has tried to get his Legislature to pass a ban. "Realtors, too — they were totally against it. For all of those agents, the car is their office."

And, Bugielski added: "A lot of the legislators themselves use these phones in their car. They certainly don't want to give that up."