The Maryland Senate Wednesday passed by the narrowest of possible margins a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving -- sending the bill to the House for what could be final action.
The long-proposed but never-before-enacted bill squeaked by on a 24-23 vote, overcoming an impassioned plea by Republican Sen. E. J. Pipkin that rejecting the ban would be a "liberty issue."
Two Republicans, Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County and Sen. Larry Haines of Carroll County, joined 22 Democrats in supporting the bill. Twelve Republicans and 11 Democrats voted nay.
The bill would bar the use of hand-held cell phones behind the wheel in most circumstances, but would allow drivers to chat using a headset. Any violation would be a "secondary offense" -- preventing a law enforcement officer from pulling over a motorist unless some other infraction was observed. Under the Senate version, the fine for violations would be $40; a companion measure in the House carries a $100 fine.
Pipkin quoted his daughter as saying the measure seemed like something out of George Orwell's novel "1984."
"I think we'll be giving up something with this law we won't be able to get back," the Upper Shore senator said.
Sen. Norman Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat who is that chamber's longest-serving member, defended the measure as a matter of common sense. Stone, the measure's sponsor, christened the measure "The Delegate John Arnick Electronic Communications Traffic safety Act of 2010" in honor or his late legislative colleague, who sponsored the first cell phone bill a decade ago.
"Delegate Arnick was way before his time. He recognized the problem with cell phone use long before anyone else," Stone said after the vote.
Stone said he hopes the House will simply adopt the Senate bill, which would send the measure to the governor. Noting the razor-thin margin in the Senate, he said any disagreement over details would only give opponents another chance to derail the bill.
"You can never tell what'll come out of a conference committee, and that conference committee (report) has to be adopted by the floor," he said.
Backers of the measure got a late scare when Simonaire sponsored a motion to reconsider passage, but that measure was rejected 19-28 after President Thomas V. Mike Miller informed senators that the bill had already been sent to the House.
Simonaire said he stands by his support of the bill but offered the motion as a courtesy to fellow senators who wanted to continue the debate. He said that after opposing the measure in past years he had been swayed by the testimony of family members of distracted-driving victims.
"When liberty starts impacting safety, I think that's where we have to draw the line," he said.