Maryland drivers could soon face a prohibition on chatting on their handheld cell phones while driving. After years of reluctance, the General Assembly now appears to be moving cautiously but steadily toward telling drivers not to hold the phones to their ears with one hand while steering with the other.
A Senate committee has voted to approve a bill that would outlaw the use of conventional cell phones behind the wheel - but only as a "secondary" offense that would not on its own be grounds for a traffic stop. Under the legislation, a driver who was talking on a handheld cell phone while committing another traffic offense, such as speeding, could be pulled over and ticketed on both charges.
The Judicial Proceedings Committee, meanwhile, rejected a stronger measure that would have made handheld cell phone use while driving a "primary" offense that could be charged even if an officer observes no other violation.
This week, legislators will continue to wrestle with the issue of cell phones and driving, which has sparked debate in Annapolis for more than a decade. The late Del. John S. Arnick began pushing such a measure in 1999 only to see it die in committee repeatedly.
After Arnick's death in 2006, his friend Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a fellow Dundalk Democrat and the Senate's longest-serving member, took up the cause. It was Stone's bill, named in memory of Arnick, that finally won committee approval.
That action came the same day the House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly for a tougher version of the driving-while-texting measure that the General Assembly had enacted last year. Under the bill, drivers would be prohibited from reading text as well as typing. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he expects the tougher texting ban to breeze through the Senate this year. He said the chances are "better than 50-50" that a handheld cell phone ban along the lines of that approved by the Judicial Proceedings Committee will pass the full Senate.
Miller said he could support such curbs because "it might save lives." He said a statutory ban would prompt many who now use cell phones while driving to stop doing so to obey the law.
"I would," he said.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, the Republican whip, noted that the bill making their use a secondary violation passed her committee with two abstentions but no negative votes from Republican members.
"I think it will pass. I don't think it would get killed," the Harford County Republican said.
Still alive in the House is a bill that would make driving while talking on a handheld cell phone a primary offense. This year the bill gained the influential sponsorship of Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, which has jurisdiction over traffic laws. The Baltimore Democrat said that the increasing complexity of cell phones had convinced her that they were now too much of a distraction to be used while on the road.
Del. James Malone, vice chairman of the committee and chairman of the subcommittee on traffic laws, said he will convene a work group Tuesday to go over several measures on cell phones.
Among other things, he said, the group will consider whether to accept the Senate's approach or to move forward with a primary ban. He said the members will also consider his own bill dealing with distracted driving more broadly.
"There's an interest in the whole issue of distracted driving not just limited to cell phones," the Arbutus Democrat said.
Del. Rudolph Cane, a senior member of the committee, said it wouldn't surprise him if the law started off as a secondary violation and eventually became a primary offense - the same path followed by the state's law requiring seat belt use. "It takes the general public some time to get used to change," the Eastern Shore Democrat said.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Sen. Michael G. Lenett's bill making the cell phone bill a primary offense lost in his committee on a 4-6 vote. The panel instead sent to the floor Stone's bill with the secondary-offense language.
"I don't know if the Senate as a whole is ready to go for a primary offense," Frosh said.
If the two chambers were to take different approaches to the legislation, the bill could end up going to a conference committee. Frosh acknowledged that, in conference, the chamber with the weaker bill generally has the stronger hand.
"I voted for the bill as a primary offense, but I think it's a step forward to make it a secondary offense," he said.
Frosh noted that many studies of cell phone use on the road have found there to be little difference between handheld cell phones and hands-free devices in how much they distract drivers. But none of the bills under consideration would ban use of the hands-free phones.
Frosh said opinions on cell phones have evolved in the General Assembly as members have observed their effect on people's driving.
"Everybody has experience with it - driving along and watching other people doing what they're doing and it's not a happy experience," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Stone said his advocacy was motivated in part by one of those experiences. He said he was in a car being driven by his wife when a woman using a cell phone ran a signal and hit them.
"She totaled my car and the first thing she said was, 'When I looked up, you were there.' "