House defeats cell phone measure

Bills on slots, radar cameras are also defeated

March 16, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A House of Delegates committee defeated a proposal yesterday for a statewide ban on using cell phones while driving and another bill that would have allowed police to use radar cameras to catch speeders.

Also yesterday, a House subcommittee voted to reject a bill to put the issue of legalizing slot machines before Maryland voters this fall, likely killing the measure.

For the fourth consecutive year, the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee decided not to make it illegal for drivers to talk on the phone while driving.

Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, had expected an accident last month on the Capitol Beltway that killed five people would give his legislation more momentum this year.

"I think [the committee] was wrong, particularly this week when we passed a bill that said it is a terrible distraction if someone is in the back seat drinking a beer," said Arnick, referring to a bill the House passed Thursday banning open containers of alcohol in moving vehicles.

"Yet you can hold the phone with one hand or take both hands off the wheel and drive?" Arnick asked.

Arnick's bill would have required motorists to pull over or use hands-free devices while talking on the phone.

Several other states and the U.S. Congress are considering similar legislation. A New York law banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving took effect in November.

Last month, an Arlington, Va., woman in a sport utility vehicle and four people from Canada riding in a minivan were killed on the Capitol Beltway in Prince George's County. Police said the woman's SUV jumped the guardrail and landed on the minivan traveling in the opposite direction.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident because the woman apparently was talking on a cell phone when it occurred.

Arnick noted that his bill got several more votes this year than it did in the past, but still fell three votes short of a majority.

Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said he voted against the bill because he believes police have the tools they need to target distracted drivers.

"Where do you draw the line?" Malone said, noting the state already has a reckless driving law. "How do you differentiate between cell phones and people putting on makeup or eating or reading a book, or everything else people do in a car?"

More than 123 million Americans use cell phones, according to industry estimates, and studies show that 60 percent of their cell time is used in automobiles.

Cellular phone companies and AAA Mid-Atlantic opposed Arnick's bill. They argued that talking on a phone is safer than other possible distractions.

A recent study from the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, however, found that using a cell phone while driving can increase the risk of an accident by up to 300 percent.

With regard to the radar cameras, Malone said the committee killed the bill because lawmakers feared it would quickly spread beyond a pilot program. The legislation, which was sought by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, would have allowed some jurisdictions to set up radar cameras to clock drivers' speed.

The cameras were to capture the speeding vehicle's license plate, then a computer was to issue a ticket to the owner's home address. The concept was modeled after the red-light cameras which more than a dozen Maryland jurisdictions use to issue tickets to motorists who ignore the signals.

The O'Malley administration said it wanted the radar cameras to enable police officers to fight violent crime. But many lawmakers worried that local governments would use the cameras as a way to raise additional revenue.

A House Ways and Means subcommittee voted against the slots proposal shortly after a hearing was held on the issue yesterday. General Assembly leaders had predicted the bill's defeat.

The legislation, championed by House Appropriations Committee chairman Howard P. Rawlings, would have allowed slot machines at four state racetracks. At least half the proceeds would have helped pay for public education and libraries.

At the hearing, Rawlings argued that the proposal would benefits schools. Representatives from racetracks and thoroughbred breeders warned that slots might be the only way to save their industry. But a group of anti-gambling activists, joined by officials from Ocean City, countered that slots would bring social ills and devastate other tourist-based businesses.

Sun staff writers David Nitkin, Sarah Koenig and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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