Cell phone measures face static

Bills to restrict use of devices by drivers meet opposition

January 31, 2001|By Jeff Barker | By Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Sponsors promoted bills yesterday that would make Maryland the first state to ban the use of hand-held telephones while driving, but the measures attracted the immediate opposition of many lawmakers and a small army of cellular phone-wielding lobbyists.

"What would be nice would be for Maryland to be the first one to say, `Yeah, safety comes first on this issue,'" Del. John S. Arnick, the sponsor of one of the measures, said during a House Commerce and Government Matters Committee hearing in Annapolis.

A similar measure died in last year's General Assembly session, but Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he is hopeful that legislators have become more attuned to the danger of reckless cellular phone use by drivers. Maryland has more than 2 million cellular phone users -- a contingent that clearly includes most of the dozen or so lobbyists at the hearing.

Arnick was aided in his push by Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, who held a hearing yesterday on a companion bill. Baker, an upper Eastern Shore Democrat, said he decided to sponsor the measure because "some cell phone drivers do a good job, but many are all over the road."

Testimony at the two hearings, held at the same time across the capital complex from one another, illustrated the depth of opposition to the bills.

Of the 11 witnesses testifying at the Senate hearing, "nine of them were lobbyists, and none of them are for the bill. That tells you something," Baker said. Among other industries, the lobbyists represented cell phone makers and business groups -- a state Realtors' association, for example -- concerned about restricting employees' ability to communicate from their cars.

Some of the bills' foes suggested they might be able to support such measures after customers had been given time to upgrade their phones to hands-free models.

At the House hearing, traffic safety expert Fran Bents said she is worried about the influence wielded by lobbyists for the telecommunications and other industries.

"No bills have passed at the state level. We have to ask why," said Bents, vice president of Dynamic Science Inc. of Annapolis, which conducts highway safety research for the government and industry. "One reason is vigorous lobbying by the cell phone industry."

Bents, a former highway safety researcher, said society shouldn't sacrifice safety so it can "keep in touch with family and friends, conduct business deals, entertain ourselves or order a carryout dinner while driving our cars."

She spoke of Jason Jones, 20, of Fort Washington, whose car careened off the Capital Beltway in 1999 as he talked on a cellular phone. A New York couple died in the ensuing accident.

Jones was fined $500 for negligent driving but was acquitted of vehicular manslaughter charges. Bents suggested that a cell phone law would have given prosecutors an important tool to use.

Bents was challenged during the hearing by delegates presenting various objections to Arnick's bill.

Del. B. Daniel Riley, a Harford County Democrat, said he took exception to the notion that he is influenced by the cell phone lobbyists. Riley said auto safety comes down to having enough "common sense" to avoid countless distractions, such as eating fast food, while driving.

Other lawmakers said the legislature shouldn't single out cell phones among a long list of items that can contribute to a driver's loss of focus.

Bents replied that the large number of potential distractions is no reason not to outlaw one of them. She said that would be like saying, "We shouldn't try to cure heart disease because there is cancer."

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