Investigators looking at cell phone use as factor in fatal accident

Monday, February 4th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal safety investigators are looking for the first time into whether a driver's use of a cell phone contributed to a fatal automobile crash.

The incident Friday near Washington left five dead when the driver of a sports vehicle utility lost control of the vehicle and hurtled over a guardrail into oncoming traffic.

The driver of the SUV and four people in the minvan it hit were killed.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said Sunday the crash is the first in which the federal agency has identified use of a cell phone as a possible factor.

Investigators also are looking into any possible design flaws in median guardrails, which failed to stop the Explorer as it crossed the 55-foot median.

``Some of the issues we are looking at are the fact that the (Explorer) crossed the median and overrode the barrier,'' said Dave Rayburn, the NTSB investigator in charge of the case. ``The other is cell phone use. Witnesses said the victim was on a phone conversation two or three minutes at the time of the crash.''

New York has banned use of hand-held cell phones while driving and many other states have considered or are considering similar restrictions.

Lopatkiewicz said NTSB investors recently set up protocols for considering cell phone use after responding to a fatal crash in Illinois a month ago in which a man allegedly talking on a phone drove into the path of a truck and was killed.

``This is the first major accident were are investigating where cell phone use will be an issue,'' Lopatkiewicz told The Washington Post in Monday's editions. ``We expect down the road to investigate more crashes involving cell phones as they come up.''