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By Calen McKinney

Those who talk on their cell phones while driving might soon have to hang up.

A bill filed last November in the Kentucky General Assembly could make talking on a cell phone while driving against the law.

House Bill 56 seeks to make using a wireless communication device while driving on a public highway an offense that carries a fine of as much as $100.

According to the bill, the use of cell phones while driving will be prohibited unless a driver safely moves out of the flow of traffic, exits to a safe area and comes to a complete stop.

Those who violate the provision would receive a written warning on the first offense and be fined $20 to $100 for the second and each subsequent offense.

However, not everyone would be banned from using cell phones if the bill becomes law.

People who use a hands-free set that allows them to talk, listen, send or receive information without holding their wireless communication device would also be allowed to use the device while driving.

Those who operate emergency or public safety vehicles or those required to use a wireless communication device as part of their official duties, according to the bill, would be allowed to use a cell phone while driving.

Other exceptions in the bill include those who are involved in an emergency, observe an emergency situation or need to use a cell phone to report another driver operating their vehicle in a reckless, negligent or dangerous manner.

The regulations do not apply to those operating a citizens band radio or amateur radio, according to the bill.

According to the Legislative Research Commission Web site, www.lrc.gov, the bill is currently in the House's Transportation Committee for consideration.

State Rep. Russ Mobley, R-Campbellsville, says he supports the bill but thinks it contains a few problems.

Mobley said the bill is currently being debated in a House committee where legislators are having trouble defining "wireless communication device."

With so many types of devices on the market today, Mobley said, defining "wireless communication device" has become difficult.

Another problem with the bill, he said, is a lack of enforcement of the state's window tinting law. When windows are tinted, he said, police may not be able to tell if a driver is using a cell phone.

Mobley says statistics today show that cell phones are a distraction to drivers.

"It's a good bill," he said. "I think if we clear all this up, it definitely will pass.

"I have voted for it and will continue to vote for it."

Campbellsville Police Chief Dennis Benningfield thinks the bill is a great idea.

Most motor vehicle collisions are caused by driver inattention, Benningfield said, which could mean several things, including using a cell phone while driving.

Benningfield said the Campbellsville Police Department has realized the need for a policy regarding cell phone use while driving.

Therefore, he said, a new policy states that Campbellsville Police Officers are to only use a cell phone - including department issued and personal phones - while driving when it is an emergency situation. If the situation is not an emergency, Benningfield said, the policy states the officer must pull his or her vehicle over before making a call.

"We recognize that it is a problem," he said. "You can drive down the highway and see it's a problem.

"Anytime you do anything other than concentrate on driving, it's a distraction."

Benningfield said enforcing the regulation, if the bill passes and becomes law, would be similar to enforcing Kentucky's seat belt law. If an officer sees someone violating the law, officers can - and will - cite them.

Benningfield said hands-free devices are better than holding a cell phone while driving, which leaves drivers using only one hand to control their vehicle.

"When it comes to a quick emergency maneuver, you can't steer correctly and control your vehicle with one hand."

Taylor County Sheriff John Shipp says he thinks the bill is a good idea but is another safety measure drivers should already be following.

Recently, he said, one of his officers was following a female driver who was talking on a cell phone and stopped at a green traffic light. Once it turned red, he said, the driver drove through the light. The driver later told the officer that she didn't remember what happened.

Shipp said he read a recent study that analyzed cell phone use while driving. The study found that cell phone use while driving impaired a person's ability to drive similarly to being under the influence of alcohol and registering a .08 blood alcohol level.

Some Campbellsville residents say they support the bill, while another says she opposes it.

Campbellsville residents Terry and Paula Hunt both say they think banning cell phone using while driving is a good idea.

Mrs. Hunt says she doesn't like to use a cell phone while driving and thinks it can distract drivers. Mr. Hunt says he thinks people may pay more attention to their phones than the road.

Resident Betty Smith agrees and says she thinks the bill is a good idea.

Campbellsville University sophomore Andre' Tomaz of Romania thinks it would be safer for drivers to not use their cell phones or other gadgets when driving.

"It deviates your attention from the road and everything else around you," he said. "A lot of my friends don't pay attention while they're on the phone."

Tomaz said some new cars today have built in hands-free devices, and he thinks those are also safer.

In Romania, he said, cell phone use while driving is already illegal and police are pretty strict about enforcing the law. Tomaz said several of his friends in Romania have been caught talking on a cell phone while driving and had to pay a fine.

Campbellsville University master's student Shoko Unesaki says talking on a cell phone while driving is also illegal in Japan, her home country.

This being illegal, she said, has reduced the number of people who talk on a cell phone while driving. She says she thinks its being illegal in Kentucky would help drivers become more careful.

CU sophomore Meredith Coffey says she thinks hands-free devices ought to be legal but actually holding a cell phone while driving should not.

Prohibiting cell phone use while driving would make her feel safer, Coffey said, while driving in large cities like Lexington and Louisville.

However, CU sophomore Rachel Crenshaw says banning cell phone use while driving might be too restrictive and infringe on people's rights.

"How else would you know what you need to pick up at the grocery?" she said.

Crenshaw said drivers can always use a speakerphone function on their phones to talk without actually holding a phone.

Campbellsville High School senior Amanda Colvin and sophomore Joseph Cox say they both agree with the bill but think hands-free devices should be allowed.

Cox says he thinks cell phones should be banned while driving but some people seem to just have to use their phones while driving.

House Bill 56 is not the only bill legislators have introduced in an attempt to regulate the use of wireless communication and other devices while driving.

House Bill 125 seeks to prohibit those with an instructional permit from using a personal telecommunications device while driving. The bill also includes a provision for permit holders to affix a decal indicating their permit status on their vehicle.

Amendments to the bill state violating the requirement would be simply a violation not subject to any fine or court costs.

Other amendments state that the use of a telecommunication device to receive medical or other emergency help would be allowed and the requirement would not apply to global positioning systems in vehicles, only devices capable of two-way audio or text communication.

As of last week, House Bill 125 had passed House legislators with a 95-0 vote. The bill is now in the Senate's Transportation Committee for consideration.

Another bill, Senate Bill 116, addresses drivers who write, read and send text messages while driving.

The bill seeks to prohibit drivers from reading, writing and sending text messages while driving. Violating the provision would become a secondary offense, according to the bill, and the Transportation Cabinet would not be allowed to include violating it as a conviction on a person's driving record or be allowed to report the conviction to the person's employer or insurance company but would allow violators to be penalized.

As of last week, the bill was in the Senate's judiciary committee for consideration.

For more information or an updated status of any of these bills, visit www.lrc.gov.

State Sen. Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, was in legislative meetings and did not return phone calls.

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.