House bill takes aim at drivers' phone use

Hand-held cellular calls would be secondary offense

February 05, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County delegate seeking to prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones offered to amend his bill yesterday to win over skeptical lawmakers.

The new proposal by Del. John S. Arnick would make it a "secondary offense" for drivers to talk on a cell phone while driving. Police could not pull over or ticket drivers simply for talking on the phone, but those on the phone while committing another offense such as speeding would get two tickets.

"This is the first step," said Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat. "Why this secondary offense makes sense is it is telling people: `Wake up. You wouldn't have gotten this real violation if you'" hadn't been on the phone.

For the past five years, Arnick has tried unsuccessfully to enact an outright ban on using a hand-held cell phone while driving on Maryland highways; motorists would have been permitted to use cell phones with hands-free devices.

In previous years, Arnick's proposal ran into stiff opposition from phone providers, AAA Mid-Atlantic and many legislators. Opponents argued that talking on a cell phone is no different than other distractions like changing a radio station.

At yesterday's hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee, several legislators indicated their previous concerns remain, including how the prohibition would be enforced and if the measure would discourage motorists from calling in emergencies. (The bill, though, makes an exception for emergency calls.)

Del. Rudolph C. Cane, an Eastern Shore Democrat, feared the proposal would give police another excuse to profile and harass African-Americans.

Several lobbyists who represent business and phone companies - with the exception of Verizon Communications Inc., which has endorsed Arnick's amended proposal - spoke out against the legislation.

"My radio has 20 buttons and a lot of these buttons require as much attention or more attention than talking on the cell phone," said W. Miles Cole, a lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

But Christy Huddle of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., testified she has to frequently dodge motorists using phones on her way to and from her job in Rockville.

"In this room, cell phones are an annoyance," Huddle said, referring to earlier orders to turn off cell phones and pagers. "But when you're in a car or you are a pedestrian in a crosswalk, it's a lot more than an annoyance if you hit that pedestrian."

Studies show more than 2 million people in Maryland use cell phones and 85 percent of them use the phones while driving, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

"There is absolutely not a question ... that using a hand-held cell phone is dangerous," Arnick said. "The question is how dangerous."

New York became the first state to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving in 2001. Several other states have since passed less-stringent laws.

Maryland has been studying the issue since 2000. Statistics by the State Highway Administration show phones were a factor in 11 out of the 101,411 accidents in 2001, but some critics dispute such low findings.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the committee chairwoman, said she is "conflicted."

"I think it is going to keep coming back as an issue, but the statistics don't bear out that cell phones cause accidents," the Baltimore Democrat said.

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