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ARRL President Presents League's Views on Distracted Driving Laws to Safety Advocacy Group

08/09/2009

To ensure that Amateur Radio is not an unintended victim of the growing public debate over what to do about distracted drivers, ARRL President Joel Harrison, W5ZN, has written a letter to the National Safety Council (NSC), highlighting issues regarding the use of Amateur Radio emergency communications devices in vehicles. Many states have outlawed the use of cell phones while driving; some states with these laws have ambiguous wording (such as "mobile communication devices" or "mobile electronic devices") concerning the use of Amateur Radio while driving.

According to their Web site, the NSC is "on a mission" to "alert the American public that different kinds of distractions have different levels of crash risk. Talking on a cell phone and sending text messages are much higher risk activities that occur for longer durations and with more people than most other actions engaged in while driving." They also seek to "lead a change in our nation's cultural norms, so people come to view cell phone conversations and text messaging while driving as unsafe and socially unacceptable. Calling for a legislative ban on these activities is the first step in a long-term process to educate Americans to their risk and change the culture."

Harrison explained to NSC President Janet Froetscher that Amateur Radio operators provide essential emergency communications when regular communications channels are disrupted by disaster: "Through formal agreements with federal agencies, such as the National Weather Service, FEMA and private relief organizations, the Amateur Radio volunteers protect lives using their own equipment without compensation. The ability of hams to communicate and help protect the lives of those in danger would be strictly hindered if the federal, state and local governments to not ensure that Amateur Radio operators can continue the use of their mobile radios while on the road."

According to ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner, K1ZZ, it boils down to the difference between simplex -- when only one message can be sent in either direction at one time -- and duplex -- a communications mode, such as a telephone system, that provides simultaneous transmission and reception in both directions. Harrison, citing Sumner's 40-plus years of experience as an Amateur Radio operator, puts it this way: "Simplex, two-way radio operation is simply different than duplex, cell phone use. Two-way radio operation in moving vehicles has been going on for decades without highway safety being an issue. The fact that cell phones have come along does not change that."

Harrison attached a copy of the ARRL's Policy Statement on Mobile Amateur Radio Operation to the letter to the NSC. "Amateur Radio mobile operation is ubiquitous, and Amateur Radio emergency and public service communications, and other organized Amateur Radio communications activities and networks necessitate operation of equipment while some licensees are driving motor vehicles," the Policy Statement reads. "Two-way radio use is dissimilar from full-duplex cellular telephone communications because the operator spends little time actually transmitting; the time spent listening is more similar to, and arguably less distracting than, listening to a broadcast radio, CD or MP3 player. There are no distinctions to be made between or among Amateur Radio, public safety land mobile radio, private land mobile radio or citizen's radio in terms of driver distraction. All are distinguishable from mobile cellular telephone communications in this respect. Nevertheless, ARRL encourages licensees to conduct Amateur communications from motor vehicles in a manner that does not detract from the safe and attentive operation of a motor vehicle at all times.

"The ARRL acknowledges numerous and increasing instances of state legislative proposals (and occasionally municipal ordinance proposals) to curb the use of cellular telephones while operating motor vehicles, ranging from prohibitions on hand-held telephones to prohibitions on all forms of electronic devices," the Policy Statement maintains. "These statutory proposals would supplement the more generalized motor vehicle code requirements that exist in various forms in virtually all States, which require operators of motor vehicles to pay full time and attention to the operation of the vehicle while driving. ARRL understands that driver inattention is a leading cause of automobile accidents, and it is not unreasonable to be concerned about substantial distractions to drivers of motor vehicles."

Saying that the League understands that driver inattention is a leading cause of automobile accidents, "it is not unreasonable to be concerned about substantial distractions to drivers of motor vehicles. Given the necessity of unrestricted mobile Amateur Radio communications in order for the benefits of Amateur Radio to the public to continue to be realized," the policy statement reads, "the ARRL urges state and municipal legislators considering restrictions on mobile cellular telephone operation to (I) narrowly define the class of devices included in the regulation so that the class includes only full duplex wireless telephones and related hand-held or portable equipment; or alternatively (II) specifically identify licensed Amateur Radio operation as an excluded service."

Harrison pointed out that some states, in designing legislation to combat distracted driving and prevent cell phone usage behind the wheel, have done exactly what the Policy Statement suggests. He gave four examples in his letter to the NSC:

  •  Georgia SB 218, which relates to the penalties for harmful acts while driving which result in accidents, exempts the proper use of radios, citizens band radio, or mobile telephone.
  •  Iowa SF 190, which would prohibit the use of handheld cellular telephones and other wireless communication devices by motor vehicle operators, does not apply to the use of an amateur radio by a federally licensed Amateur Radio operator.
  •  Oklahoma HB 1782, which relates to full time attention while driving, prohibits use of certain devices by operators of motor vehicles and provides exceptions for a person who is operating an amateur radio and who holds a current, valid Amateur Radio station license issued by the Federal Communication Commission.
  •  Texas HB 55, which was signed into law in June 2009, relates to the offense of using a wireless communication device (narrowly defined as "a device which uses a commercial mobile service as defined by 47 USC Section 332") while operating a motor vehicle and exempts an operator who is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission while operating a radio frequency device other than a wireless communication device.

"The ARRL is aware of no evidence that [mobile] operation contributes to driver inattention," the Policy Statement asserts. "Quite the contrary: Radio amateurs are public service-minded individuals who utilize their radio-equipped motor vehicles to assist others, and they are focused on driving in the execution of that function."

Harrison told the NSC that the ARRL "would welcome the opportunity to review further these issues and explain the important role of Amateur Radio operators in emergency communications operations to save lives and property in disasters and severe weather."

According to the NSC Web site, the group "saves lives by preventing injuries and deaths at work, on the roads and in homes and communities. We engage organizations and individuals through our leadership and efforts in research, education and advocacy."



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