WAILUKU - In the closest of votes, the Maui County Council's Committee of the Whole on Thursday decided to hold off on a bill that would require drivers to put down their cell phones while behind the wheel.
Council Member Joe Pontanilla, who holds the Kahului residency seat, introduced the proposal intended to cut down on Maui County's share in the national epidemic of distracted driving. At Thursday's meeting, he said, he decided to introduce the bill after some near collisions he's had with people with phones to their ears or text messaging while driving.
It's gotten so bad, Pontanilla said, that he'll wait a couple of cautious moments before entering an intersection after a traffic light's turned green because he's seen people on phones barrel through red lights.
The Maui Police Department and Department of the Prosecuting Attorney expressed support for the measure Thursday, noting that cell phone bans - unless drivers use a hands-free device such as a Bluetooth earpiece - already have been put in place in Honolulu, Kauai and Hawaii counties.
Pontanilla's bill bans "using," or holding, any "mobile electronic device." These include cell phones; PDAs, or palm-top computers; laptops; and hybrids, like iPhones, which can do it all, while driving.
Honolulu's police have issued about 3,000 citations since its ban took effect last June, according to the Maui Police Department. And since Hawaii County's ban was made official in July, none of the citations has been contested and gone to costly trials, authorities said.
Only Maui County stands out now, noted Council Member Wayne Nishiki.
There's not much reason not to move forward when the trail's been blazed already, said Council Member Bill Medeiros, who added that a number of states have instituted similar bans.
Taxi driver Kenny Barr said earpieces are a pain to wear during long days. And business representatives, particularly taxi and truck drivers, testified that in the current difficult economic climate, they can't afford to switch over to the new communications technology so quickly.
The Committee of the Whole, which is made up of all nine council members, voted 5-4 to defer the issue until a later date, probably after the upcoming budget deliberations are done in the spring, said committee Chairman Mike Molina. Maybe May, he said.
"We're very close," he said about implementing the bill. "We just need some more information."
Molina reminded his colleagues that the state Legislature this session is considering a bill to ban cell phone use while driving statewide, and lawmakers likely will act on the measure before they adjourn for the year April 29. Whatever law the state comes up with almost certainly would supersede the county's and probably would go on the books sooner, he said.
The state House last year passed a cell phone ban while driving bill authored by state Rep. Joe Souki of Wailuku. The bill didn't go anywhere without support in the state Senate, Souki said.
But this year, Sen. J. Kalani English, whose district includes Upcountry, East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, helped introduce a similar measure in the Senate.
On Thursday, Molina and Council Members Jo Anne Johnson, Danny Mateo, Mike Victorino and Gladys Baisa voted to defer the Maui County bill. They want people to be safer, but the cost to business owners also deserves to be discussed more on the committee level, several of them said.
Pontanilla, Nishiki, Med-eiros and Council Member Sol Kaho'ohalahala asked for immediate council action.
The bill would exempt drivers calling 911 and drivers who use two-way radios for work. The traffic violation would be punishable by a fine of no more than $100 for a first offense and no more than $250 for any subsequent offense.
Although Nishiki and Baisa voted differently, they both said this is a great matter of public safety and both cited Oprah Winfrey's national effort to end distracted driving. The part-time Maui resident wants people to sign an online pledge not to text, e-mail or talk while driving.
Almost 500,000 Americans are injured, and 6,000 are killed each year due to distracted driving, according to oprah.com.
Pontanilla made a plea to forward the bill to the full council for a vote in the coming weeks. If council members could avert just one more tragedy, then it's worth it, he said. The sooner the better, he added.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.