Panel split over ban on hand-held phones in cars

January 23, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

It's talking on the phone, not holding it in your hand, that leads to auto accidents, opponents of a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving told lawmakers yesterday.

But proponents of the ban - who have been trying for nearly a decade to enact legislation restricting cell phone use while driving - said that handling phones and the increasingly prevalent practice of typing messages on them while behind the wheel increase the likelihood of driver distraction, which accounts for more than a million car crashes a year.

Lawmakers appeared split on the issue during a committee hearing yesterday, and proponents said the measure is within one vote of success or failure.

Gary M. Horewitz, a government affairs representative for Sprint Nextel, said the Maryland law would "lead to greater risk on the highway" because it would encourage drivers to talk on hands-free devices - and that it is the potentially distracting conversation, not the handling of phones per se, that is the real danger.

"The bill will potentially lead to more crashes, not less," he said.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Michael G. Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat, would allow drivers to use wireless communication devices only with hands-free accessories, such as headphone sets equipped with microphones.

At least five states and the District of Columbia have passed bans on driving while talking on hand-held cell phones, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation. Among them are Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

After yesterday's hearing, Lenett said the proposed ban - variations of which have deadlocked Maryland's legislature since 1999 - faces a tough hurdle in the nine-member Judicial Proceedings committee.

"It's extremely close, maybe within one vote," Lenett said. But he maintained hope that support from Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration as well as a national trend toward similar bans would swing the issue this year.

But Sprint lobbyists and several Republican committee members pointed to accident statistics from the Maryland State Police that list cell phones as causing only one half of 1 percent of all crashes.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the committee considering the bill, said he supports the measure but added that it is too early to predict whether his members would vote to send the legislation to the Senate floor for a full hearing.

"It's a very controversial issue, one in which people are going to try and figure out how their constituents feel about it," Frosh said.

If the bill does make it out of committee, leaders in the Senate and House of Delegates said it stands a good chance of becoming law.

Both Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that they would support the ban.

If it passes the Senate, Busch predicted the bill would have a "strong possibility" of support in the House, though he said the law would be difficult to enforce.

"I know it would be a great inconvenience to many, but it's a life-saving measure," Miller said. "I'm sure people will give it a fair shot."

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties, told members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday that she believed using a cell phone while driving could actually save lives in some circumstances.

"When somebody's whizzing by me at 100 miles an hour, I'll often call the police and report the license plate," Jacobs said to Lenett during the hearing.

Emergency calls would be exempted from the ban, he responded.

"What about a call from one of your children to you because of what they thought of as an emergency situation?" Jacobs asked.

She said that while driving one night at 11 p.m., her daughter called her cell phone, believing she was being shot at.

Answering any call while driving, except with a hands-free deice, would be prohibited, Lenett said.

Under the law, violators of the ban would receive a $100 fine for a first offense and a $250 fine for subsequent offenses. The $100 penalty could be waived by a judge if the driver proved purchase of a hands-free device.

Maryland already prohibits the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers younger than 18 who hold a learner's permit or provisional license.

Some Democratic senators also raised concerns about the bill yesterday. Sen. James Brochin of Towson said he was worried that the bill might "give a license to police to literally stake out areas and look for people using cell phones."

And Baltimore Sen. Lisa Gladden said she was concerned that police could use cell phone use as a pretext for racial profiling.

"Do police officers have the responsibility to stop everybody?" Gladden, who is black, asked Lenett. "Or do they pick and choose?"

Lenett said a similar concern arose over Maryland's seat belt law, and that studies showed police were actually more likely to cite whites than blacks on that violation.

Carolyn Bonnett, a lobbyist for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the group was not taking a formal position on the bill but that it generally favored broad restrictions on "distracted driving" rather than cell phone bans.

Supporters of the bill include the Maryland State Medical Society and the Maryland Department of Transportation, which is part of O'Malley's administration.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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