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Colorado Amateur Radio Operators Win Legislative Victory

02/09/2009

Amateur Radio operators in Colorado won a legislative victory on February 3 before the Transportation and Energy Committee of the Colorado House of Representatives. The committee heard testimony Wednesday on HB 09-1094, A Bill for an Act Concerning Wireless Telephone Prohibitions for Drivers. The bill, sponsored by Rep Claire Levy (D-13) would entirely prohibit the use of wireless telephones by drivers under the age of 18 years; and would require the use of hands-free devices for most other drivers while operating a motor vehicle in motion within the state of Colorado. While the bill provided exemptions for public safety personnel within the scope of their duties, and all users in the event of an emergency to contact public safety authorities, there was concern that enforcement authorities would fail to differentiate between Amateur Radio transceivers and traditional cellular or PCS telephones.

Concerned about the possible ambiguity, ARRL Colorado Section Manager Jeff Ryan, K0RM, and Colorado Section Public Information Coordinator Robert Wareham, N0ESQ, reviewed the proposed bill together and devised a plan to address concerns. "Jeff had already contacted Rep Levy," Wareham said, "but she expressed hesitance to add any amendments for what she considered 'special interests.' Upon introduction, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Energy. My local representative, Frank McNulty (R-43), was a member of that committee, so I gave him a call."

According to Wareham, McNulty was unsupportive of the bill in general, but he agreed to introduce an amendment to clearly exempt Amateur Radio operators. "I reminded Rep McNulty of a similar statute enacted in 2007 in the State of Washington. I thought he could use the Washington wording as a possible example to model his amendment. That statute expressly exempts Amateur Radio operators licensed by the FCC when operating mobile Amateur Radio stations."

HB 09-1094 came before the Committee on February 3, 2009. "We were a little surprised to see a packed house in the Old Supreme Court Chambers of the State Capitol," Ryan said. Wareham said that a legislative staffer informed Ryan prior to the hearing that there was substantial interest in the "hands-free cellular" bill, as it was being commonly called. Representatives of the four major television network affiliates were all present. "It was a great opportunity for us to spread the word about Amateur Radio to the reporters prior to the hearing," Ryan recalled. "One of the videographers even approached us and introduced himself by his call sign."

Wareham said that testimony in support of the bill was "emotional and compelling. A mother -- who had lost her 9 year old daughter to an inattentive driver who was fishing for a ringing cell phone -- testified as to her grief. A woman who had lost a leg when a young driver pinned her to her parked automobile while texting on his cell phone also testified to the devastation her family had experienced.

Wareham and Ryan had agreed that the ARRL Colorado Section would remain neutral as to the merit of the bill itself, but seek an amendment to protect Amateur Radio in the event the bill passed. Wareham testified on behalf of the Section and reminded the lawmakers of the important role that Amateur Radio plays in response to disasters and in support of the weather service. He distinguished the use of mobile and portable radios from that of cellular telephones, pointing out that using an Amateur Radio on a routine basis required far less human interaction.

"I held up a dual band portable handheld transceiver and showed the lawmakers how, with a DTMF pad, a portable transceiver might be mistaken for a wireless telephone device by well-meaning but misinformed enforcement officials. I told that Committee, 'This is not your grandfather's ham radio, a big box with glowing tubes -- yet with a few pushes on a few buttons, I am capable of speaking with someone on the other side of the world.'"

Emphasizing that on a daily basis or even during emergencies ham radio operators generally confine themselves to a limited number of channels preprogrammed into their radios, Wareham assured the committee members that Amateur Radio use posed nowhere near the danger that cellular telephones are believed to pose. "When I want to answer or place a call to another ham, it is generally no more than picking up the microphone or portable radio and pushing a single button. It does not pose a visual distraction," Wareham testified before the Committee.

After almost two hours of testimony, it was time for the Committee to vote on the proposed amendments. "Rep McNulty introduced his amendment, the one exempting Amateur Radio from the bill, and that was seconded by the Committee Chair," Wareham said. 'The amendment added the following subsection to the proposed statute: "This section does not restrict operation of an Amateur Radio station by a person who holds a valid Amateur Radio operator license issued by the Federal Communications Commission."

After the Chair asked if there were any objections to the proposed amendment, we sat in stunned silence as not a single member of the committee, nor the bill's author, offered any objection," Wareham said. "The Committee Chair then announced that the amendment was adopted unanimously." After the introduction and modification of two additional amendments, Wareham said a vote was taken on the amended bill. By a vote of 9-2, the bill was approved and forwarded to the House Committee on Appropriations, prior to being sent to the full House for a vote.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Ryan said, "but it certainly feels good to have the exemption in print in the amended bill. After sitting through this afternoon's hearing, it is good to know that we can have an impact on laws that affect us, but we also have to be responsible in the way we exercise the special privileges accorded to us. We must all do our best to assure that when we operate from our vehicles we do so with utmost consideration for safety."

Wareham echoed Ryan's remarks: "It was difficult to hear the story of a mother who lost her 9 year old daughter to a moment's distraction. Whether responding during a disaster or spotting hazardous weather, safe operation of our vehicles while completing our missions must be paramount. Hams in Colorado owe a debt of gratitude to Rep McNulty for his willingness to champion their cause."

Wareham said that assuming the bill passes through the House Committee on Appropriations, it will be brought before the entire Colorado House of Representatives and then approved in the State Senate before being sent to the Governor for his signature. The bill has a proposed effective date of December 1, 2009.



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