Legislation to ban using a cell phone while driving ran into opposition yesterday, eliciting a mixed reception in a House committee that has killed similar bills this year.
Skeptical questions outnumbered statements of support as the House Environmental Matters Committee briefly reviewed the cell phone bill that cleared the Senate last week after prolonged debate and revision.
The bill - which senators approved on a vote of 26-21 - would outlaw talking on a hand-held cell phone or text-messaging while driving. But hands-free devices and speakerphones would be permitted, and the first-offense penalty of $50 could be waived if the offender gets hands-free gear.
"That bill is a dropped call," Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland, predicted after the hearing. He said cell phone use is just one of a number of driver distractions, and that the bill doesn't really deal with the larger problem.
Sen. Mike Lenett, the bill's sponsor, appealed to members of the panel not to give his bill the same treatment it has already given to other legislation introduced this year that would have banned text-messaging or forbidden school bus drivers from using cell phones. Both measures died in committee.
"We know driving while using a cell phone or text-messaging is unsafe," Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat, told the committee. He ticked off six research studies over the past four years that he said demonstrated the dangers of talking on cell phones, including a 2006 federal report that ranked cell phone use as the most common distraction for drivers.
Lenett pointed out that 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws restricting cell phone use while driving, with outright bans on hand-held phones in a half-dozen states and Washington.
Acknowledging that cell phone use while driving is common, even among legislators, the senator argued, "This is such an important public safety measure that I think it outweighs the inconvenience we would all be operating under."
The measure is less stringent than the one Lenett originally introduced. Police would only be able to cite drivers for using cell phones if they are stopped for another reason, and first offenders would have no points assessed on their driving records. The ban also would expire after two years unless the legislature renewed it.
Del. Pamela G. Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, voiced her support for the bill at the hearing, saying she had just watched a TV report demonstrating the hazards of teens trying to drive while text-messaging.
"I think it's very, very necessary that we take whatever distractions we can from drivers," she said.
But O'Donnell questioned the bill's efficacy, asking whether there is any evidence the ban in Washington has reduced traffic accidents there.
Attitudes on the measure don't fall along party lines. Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell, a Carroll County Republican who has co-sponsored similar bills in previous years, said her family's vehicle was hit from behind by a young driver talking on a cell phone.
Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who is vice chairman of the committee, pointed out the law already bars teenage drivers with learner's permits or provisional licenses from using cell phones while driving, except in emergencies.
After the hearing, Malone, chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill, said he wondered if adopting a ban would create new traffic hazards, with drivers swerving off the road to stop and answer cell phone calls.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the committee, who was not present for the hearing, said she personally supports the cell phone driving ban. But she said many members of her panel remain steadfastly opposed. She predicted that it would be a close vote on the panel.
"The House has never warmed up to that bill," McIntosh said.
Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.