Lawmakers consider stricter texting ban for drivers

February 18, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | Baltimore Sun reporter

Maryland lawmakers want to tighten a new state law by blocking motorists from reading text messages -- not just writing them -- as part of their perennial review of distracted driving issues.

The General Assembly has long wrestled with how much to restrict driver cell phone use. It took its first timid step last year, passing a ban only on sending text messages, a misdemeanor traffic offense that carries up to a $500 fine. This year, lawmakers say, they plan to outlaw text-message reading -- and some believe they have enough support for an all-out ban on hand-held cell phone use, forcing chatty Maryland drivers to use hands-free devices.

Just seven states and Washington, D.C., have such a broad prohibition, though many cities impose those limits, as do more than 50 countries.

"The time has come," said Sen. Michael G. Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat who has pushed for cell-phone restrictions since joining the Senate in 2007. "We have all kinds of momentum."

Lenett told a receptive committee of senators on Thursday that barring text-messaging last year was "significant," but "we cannot stop there."

The Senate panel adopted a hands-free measure in 2008, but it was defeated in the House of Delegates. This year could be different, though. Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and head of the Environmental Matters Committee where previous cell-phone driving bills have been blocked, said she believes member of the panel are more receptive to the idea.

The phones themselves may be responsible for lawmakers' change of heart, she said. With features like mapping, social media, e-mail and Web browsing, there are too many temptations for drivers when their phones are in front of them, she said.

"The feeling is that it's time we put these devices away," she said. She is also sponsoring a ban, a proposal that will be heard in her committee early next month.

Lenett pointed to federal "momentum" on distracted driving issues, as cell phones become more indispensable and all-present.

The U.S. Department of Transportation held a summit on the topic last fall in Washington. A national group called Focus Driven, styled after the successful Mothers Against Drunk Driving, launched last month.

Its founding director, Jennifer Smith, traveled to Annapolis for Thursday's Senate hearing.

Smith, a Dallas resident whose mother died in a September 2008 collision with a driver on a cell phone, asked lawmakers if "anyone's life worth a few minutes on the phone?"

Also testifying was Russell Hurd, a Harford County resident whose daughter died in a Florida traffic accident with a truck driver who'd been sending a message at the time. Hurd was a key advocate last year and called the legislature's ban on text-messages "the first step to safer highways." He urged lawmakers to "finish the job."

The legislation was a compromise designed to get the measure out of a recalcitrant House committee, and many lawmakers acknowledged at the time it would need tweaking.

The law applies to phones and hand-held electronic devices, such as a BlackBerry, in use while a driver is in travel lanes -- even if stopped at a red light or in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Drivers can send messages only if they have legally pulled onto a shoulder.

A violation is a primary offense, meaning that police can stop motorists suspected of sending messages even if the officer sees no other infraction. But some lawmakers complained last year that the measure would be unenforceable, saying it would be nearly impossible for a passing officer to tell if a driver was reading a message or sending one. Just 60 citations have been issued since the texting-while-driving ban became law Oct. 1, according to a legislative analysis.

Lenett's hands-free proposal, which is similar to McIntosh's and is one of the most restrictive of the half-dozen or so bills up for consideration this year, would include a $50 fine and no points for first-time offenders and up to $100 penalty each additional time.

While hands-free devices would be legal for most drivers, school bus drivers and people with learner's instructional permits or provisional licenses would not be able to use cell phones at all while behind the wheel. Emergency and highway workers would be exempted.

In the Senate committee Thursday, some lawmakers questioned how far the state should go in its quest to combat distracted driving. Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican, asked what makes talking on a cell phone any different than talking to someone in the back seat.

"Why not ban all talking?" he questioned sarcastically.

Lenett said many studies have shown that cell use contributes to accidents. The Harvard Center of Risk Analysis estimated it accounts for 6 percent of all crashes every year. That equals about 636,000 collisions, leading to 330,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths.

But other reports, including one last year by the Highway Loss Data Institute and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, show no significant reduction in accidents in states that have enacted hand-held cell phone bans.

Lawmakers say they plan to tighten the texting restrictions regardless of whether a cell-phone ban becomes law, and McIntosh said it was a "sure bet" that her committee would approve the reading prohibition.

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