Previously-Rejected Cell Phone Ban on Redial in Maryland Legislature

January 25, 2007

A cell phone ban for Maryland drivers has been considered — and rejected — many times by state lawmakers.

However, two new plans before lawmakers have some asking if this is the year Maryland will join Washington, D.C. and the state of New Jersey in banning hand-held phones while driving.

The plans, heard by a Senate committee Tuesday, would make it a crime for drivers to chat on phones without using a handsfree accessory. Two years ago, Maryland banned hand-held cell phone for all drivers under 18, but adults are still allowed to use them.

The sponsor of one of the bills, Sen. Mike Lenett, admits he uses his cell phone while driving and calls the bill a “commonsense public safety measure.”

“I know it’s a bad habit. I’m a less safe driver,” Lenett said.

One of the bans, proposed by Democratic Sen. Norman Stone, even creates a new crime of “distracted driving,” which would allow police officers to ticket drivers for reading, writing or “performing personal grooming” while driving.

Stone said he added the “distracted driving” idea to address complaints that cell phones aren’t any worse for drivers than classic distractions such as a crying baby in the backseat.

“People say, ‘What about putting on makeup? Or combing your hair? Or looking at a newspaper?”’ said Stone, who added that 18 months ago his Lincoln Town Car was totaled when a cell-phone-using driver ignored a stop sign.

AAA Mid-Atlantic supports the cell-phone ban and the “distracted driver” law.

“The bottom line is, distractions cause drivers to react more slowly” to traffic conditions, said AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella.

There was little indication from lawmakers, though, that this year’s proposals will succeed when others have failed. Stone said bans have been considered for at least eight years, but none has made it to a vote.

One of the senators who heard the bill proposals, Republican Sen. Nancy Jacobs, wondered why cell phones would be singled out as distraction when even eating potato chips can distract a driver and cause an accident.

“How far are we going to go?” she asked.

Jacobs also raised issue with the “distracted driving” proposal.

“I’m a little bit concerned about this. We’re going to have police officers stopping women because they thought they saw women putting lipstick on,” Jacobs said.

Both bills would make hand-held cell phone use a primary offense, meaning an officer could stop a driver simply for seeing them talking on the phone. Dialing a number on a handsfree device would still be allowed, as would calls to 911.

Stone said it was too soon to know whether the 2005 measure for those under 18 has decreased auto accidents.

Lenett urged senators to take a fresh look at a cell phone ban, even though almost everyone admits to using phones at times while driving.

“We can debate whether we want to deal with the inconvenience,” he said, “but I don’t think we can honestly debate whether we are safer” without cell phones.


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