Texting-ban bill advances in state Senate

General Assembly 2009

March 14, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Drivers in Maryland could be pulled over for writing, reading or sending text messages under a bill that cleared a significant hurdle in the General Assembly yesterday.

The state Senate gave preliminary approval to the legislation, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller predicted near-unanimous final approval in his chamber early next week. That gives the issue that has been debated for years major impetus this session.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a key House committee chairwoman, said after the Senate action that she is "absolutely committed" to passing a similar bill in the coming weeks.

State lawmakers have considered various safety measures regarding the use of cell phones and other hand-held wireless devices while behind the wheel, but the bills failed to gain enough support in past years or became bogged down in disagreements over whether to target drivers who talk or text or both.

The bill moving forward in the Senate does not encompass holding cell phones to talk, but proponents of a texting-while-driving ban say they are addressing a fast-growing and insidious problem. One study by Nationwide Insurance estimated that one in five drivers sends or receives text messages, according to a legislative analysis.

"We're trying to prevent accidents. We're trying to prevent injuries. We're trying to prevent deaths," said Sen. Norman R. Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat and sponsor of the bill. "There's no question this is a dangerous practice."

The bill would make violations a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum fine of $500. It would be a primary offense, meaning police would be able to pull over drivers solely on suspicion of texting.

Several senators expressed concern that the bill criminalizes a widespread behavior and that less punitive steps could be taken to discourage the practice.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, offered an amendment that would have launched a public education campaign rather than create a new traffic offense, but it failed on a 39-7 vote.

Other senators said the prohibition would be difficult to enforce and could enable racial or age profiling. They failed on a 31-16 vote to make the violation a secondary office, so that police officers would only be able to ticket drivers if they committed another, primary, offense such as speeding.

The Senate last year voted to ban drivers from using cell phones or wireless devices unless equipped with hands-free accessories, a measure broadly aimed at talking and texting, but only as a secondary offense.

McIntosh said the House might be more inclined to make the texting ban a secondary offense this year, creating a potential sticking point with the Senate.

"It will be hotly debated," she said.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he worries that drivers who are simply dialing a phone number could be pulled over for texting. "Quite frankly, how would you know?" he asked. "We're putting police officers in an odd position."

Officers would know the difference, countered Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat and former police chief, because drivers would eventually bring the cell phone to their ear if they only meant to talk.

Seven states and the District of Columbia specifically prohibit driving while texting. Maryland does ban texting and cell-phone use only by drivers younger than 18.

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