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Proposed cellphone ban splits police, lawmakers

John Walls, vice president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, discusses the NTSB proposal.

The government's proposal to ban drivers from using cellphones in any way — even with hands-free help — is dividing police and lawmakers alike, who agree on one thing: Any such ban would likely be hard to enforce.

The National Transportation Safety Board urged all 50 states Tuesday to ban drivers from using portable electronic devices, with only two exceptions: You could still use GPS navigation devices, and you could use your cellphone in an emergency.

US calls for ban on in-car phone use ... even with Bluetooth

The effectiveness of any such ban would come down to enforcement by local authorities, something that not all of them agree on.

Michigan State Police are already having a tough time enforcing the state's ban on texting while driving, and expecting troopers to be able to tell whether someone is talking through a tiny earpiece is "an unrealistic expectation for law enforcement," State Trooper Jamie Voss told NBC station WPBN of Traverse City. 

Todd Nehls, sheriff of  Dodge County, Wis., said he also wouldn't support a ban, telling NBC station WTMJ of Milwaukee that "millions of people talk on the cellphone and drive safely every day" — echoing the contention of the Consumer Electronics Association one of two industry trade groups the NTSB singled out to lead development of safer technology.

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"Rather than prohibit using cellphones, we should continue to educate the public about the dangers of using cellphones while driving," Nehls said.

But Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Randall Martin contended that a complete ban would actually be easier to enforce than the state's current ban on texting while driving is illegal. 

Under current law, Martin told NBC station WBIR of Knoxville, it's difficult to tell whether a person is texting or dialing. A total ban would eliminate the guesswork because drivers wouldn't be allowed to touch their phones at all.

"Anything that's going to take a distraction out of a driver's hand or field of view is a bonus," Martin said.

The NTSB's recommendation isn't binding, which means enactment "will probably be a patchwork implementation as it goes and most likely driven by reformers at the state level," said Michael Wolf, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

The federal government could bring extra pressure to bear, Wolf told NBC station WISE of Fort Wayne, by enacting measures "to coerce states through withholding federal highway funds or save other grants to move them in that direction."

Lawmakers agreed that putting together a nationwide ban would be difficult.

Delegate Cheryl Glenn, a Democrat from Baltimore who's a member of the Maryland House transportation subcommittee, said a total ban probably isn't realistic in any state, because most offenses wouldn't be considered major driving offenses.

"You can be right next to the police and talking away, and they can't do a thing to you unless you run a red light," Glenn told NBC station WBAL of Baltimore. 

Lawmakers in several other states said essentially the same thing: A ban on phone conversations probably wouldn't fly. 

"I don't think you'll get that passed," Republican Utah state Sen. Lyle Hillyard told NBC station KSL of Salt Lake City.

And Rep. Joe Palmer, chairman of the Idaho House Transportation Committee, said a blanket approach would be especially unworkable in a rural state like his, where long, open stretches of highway pass through multiple unincorporated areas without police agencies.

"I recommend more education," Palmer told NBC station KTVB of Boise. "It's not safe for people to be driving and texting, but it's a bigger issue than that."

An Ohio businessman, meanwhile, raised a separate objection.

"That would have a negative impact on our business," said Derek Temke of A-Abel Heating and Air Conditioning in Dayton. 

Like many other businesses that make house calls — think UPS, FedEx and just about every pizza chain in the country — "I drive around all day, and I am making calls to customers," Temke told NBC station WDTN of Dayton. "It could cost us a lot of money and a lot of time, because we would have to pull over to talk on the phone." 

Even so, Temke said he understands why some people want a total ban.

"Cellphones can be dangerous," he said.

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