New York Gov. George Pataki on Thursday signed the nation's first state-wide ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving, saying the practice of driving with one hand on the wheel and the other on the phone posed "an enormous threat to public safety."
Sitting next to family members of people who died in traffic accidents caused by drivers who were talking on cell phones, Pataki signed the bill that the state Legislature passed overwhelmingly Monday.
The measure, which takes effect Dec. 1, slaps drivers with a $100 fine and a traffic ticket if they are caught using a hand-held cell phone while driving.
"They're a great tool," Pataki said at the outdoor ceremony in Manhattan. "But they also . . . pose an enormous threat to public safety," he said. Driving "requires the full attention of the driver."
The new law will affect about 6 million cell phone users, who will have to purchase hands-free devices such as headsets or speakerphones to use their phones while driving. The devices can cost $15 to hundreds of dollars.
A potential loophole permits drivers to dial their cell phones while driving, another potential distraction. Pataki said the bill's effects would be studied to determine whether it needed to be strengthened in the future.
Polls show that New York state residents heavily favor the new measure, which was also supported by Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless communications provider.
More than 30 states have similar bills pending but none has passed. More than 20 countries forbid the use of cell phones by drivers, including Israel, Japan and several in Western Europe, officials said.
Joining Pataki and other state officials at the bill signing was Patricia Pena, whose 2-year-old daughter Morgan was killed in 1999 in a traffic collision when a driver who was talking on a cell phone ran a stop sign.
"Officials here in New York have heard and responded to the voices of their constituents," said Pena, who called for support of a Senate bill that recommends other states adopt similar bans.
Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a Democrat from the Bronx who was the key sponsor of the bill, said the new law "is a matter of ensuring public safety and better quality of life for all New Yorkers."
"We are saving lives," said Ortiz, who has introduced the ban every year since 1996. "Few took me seriously the first time."
Three large suburban New York counties, Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau, already had bans, prompting state lawmakers to push for action. A ban was also under consideration by the New York City Council.
From Dec. 1, 2001, to Feb. 28, 2002, drivers ticketed for the first time will have their fines waived if they purchase the hands-free equipment and present a receipt in court. The law will require police to report any accidents in which cell phones are implicated. Currently no statistics are available. Enforcement would be similar to that of seat belt laws, officials said.