Md. panel OKs bill on cell phone ban

Would bar use of hand-held devices while driving

April 08, 2010|By Michael Dresser | michael.dresser@baltsun.com

The Maryland legislature seems on the verge of passing a long-sought but often- defeated ban on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving after a key House committee unanimously approved the measure.

The House Environmental Matters Committee approved the Senate bill Wednesday afternoon with support from conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike.

Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who took the lead in forging consensus on the bill, said she would move the measure to the floor today. She said there are enough votes to pass the bill without amendments and send it to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his signature.

McIntosh said she was surprised by the unanimous vote. She said it shows a growing understanding in the legislature and society that as technology changes, people are trying to do more while driving, including chatting on the phone, taking pictures and checking Facebook pages.

"People are multitasking as they're going down the roads these days," she said. "I think this bill's a great step forward."

The legislation would make use of a hand-held cell phone while driving a secondary offense, meaning that a violator would have to be breaking another law for a police officer to make a traffic stop.

There is an exception for using a hand-held device while stopped at a red light. Hands-free devices are not covered by the law. The fine for a first offense would be $40, with a $100 penalty for further violations.

McIntosh said there was considerable support on the panel for making a cell phone violation a primary offense, meaning that an officer could stop a motorist for that alone, but the committee decided to go along with the Senate plan to make it a secondary offense in view of the 24-23 margin by which it passed that chamber.

McIntosh said she didn't want to risk losing the bill in the rush to Monday night's adjournment by returning it to the Senate.

Some members of the committee expressed reservations about sending the bill to the House floor without attaching an amendment exempting push-to-talk radios such as those used by many truckers. But McIntosh said she would see that a measure making that exception is sent to the Senate on a separate bill.

Among those voting for the bill in spite of reservations about McIntosh's strategy was the House Republican leader, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County. Like McIntosh, he predicted it would pass, though not without opposition.

O'Donnell said his vote reflects an evolution in the thinking of many members on the issue of cell phone use. He told the committee that he has reached the conclusion that "we have to do something."

Even a member who had voted against the bill in the motor vehicles subcommittee said he reconsidered overnight.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, a Western Maryland Republican, said he regretted not satisfying truckers' concerns about the push-to-talk exemption but believed that action is needed. He said that in deciding how to vote, he thought about the times "I caught myself on the rumble strip" while talking on a cell phone.

Some Democratic members of the committee expressed concern about passing a bill that exempted hands-free cell phones, pointing to studies showing scant difference between the levels of distraction in using those devices and hand-held phones.

But Del. James E. Malone Jr., chairman of the subcommittee that has grappled with the issue for the past two months, said the defensive-driving courses he has taken as a firefighter have stressed the importance of controlling a vehicle in emergencies.

"If you have two hands on the wheel, you'll be able to react a lot better," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, Maryland would join six other states in barring the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Those states - California, Connecticut., New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington - differ from Maryland in having made it a primary offense. The District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands also have enacted bans.

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