Maryland Senate Revives Ban on Cell Phones, Texting While Driving

March 20, 2008

A cell phone driving ban that has been rejected many times by Maryland lawmakers — as recently as last week — is alive again and headed for approval in the Maryland Senate.

But it’s still unclear whether this is the year for Maryland to join Washington, D.C., and other jurisdictions that don’t allow drivers to hold phones while driving.

The ban, approved on a preliminary 25-22 vote Tuesday, would also prohibit text messaging while driving. It would be a secondary offense — meaning a police officer could not pull over drivers simply for talking on cell phones — and would expire in two years unless lawmakers renew it.

The ban was revived in the Senate Tuesday as the chamber changed its mind and undid an amendment they approved last week to remove the bill’s ban on talking while driving, leaving just a text messaging ban. That amendment was approved by a single vote, but some senators said they didn’t understand that amendment and wanted another crack at it, a legislative maneuver that gives lawmakers a sort of “do-over.”

The second time around, senators decided not to take out the handheld phone prohibition. After voting to reject that amendment, the chamber forwarded the ban to a final vote in coming days. If approved, it would be the first time a cell phone driving ban has cleared a chamber of the Maryland legislature, though questions persist on whether the House will agree to the ban if the Senate sends it there.

“It’s an important debate we have going on here,” said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who committee has twice rejected texting-while-driving bans this year. McIntosh said it’s too soon to tell whether the Senate’s bill would succeed or fail in the House.

McIntosh said she supports the idea of a cell phone driving ban but, she added, “there has not traditionally been support in my committee” for a ban.

Back in the Senate, the ban was passed after a short debate, though one more vote is required. The bill has been changed from its original version to make it more palatable to critics. In addition to the expiration date, senators approved an amendment allowing judges to waive fines for drivers who can prove they bought handsfree accessories after getting ticketed for talking on the phone.

The Senate rejected an amendment Tuesday that would have also banned use of global positioning systems and another to exempt the Eastern Shore counties from the ban.

A final vote on the measure is expected by the end of the week.

“I think we’ve got a fair shot. I really do,” said the ban’s sponsor, Sen. Michael Lennett, D-Montgomery. He conceded the ban has been considered for many years without success, but Lennett said he senses there are enough backers now to move a ban to the governor’s desk.

“It’s just one of those bills, like the seat belt law, that just takes time,” Lennett said.

During the debate Tuesday, senators cited the ban’s success in neighboring Washington, D.C., and argued the ban will be enough to get people off the phone while driving.

“In Washington, D.C., we know that driving on a cell phone will get you a ticket, and people have stopped doing it,” said Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore.

But some wonder whether the House will agree to a driving ban. AAA Mid-Atlantic has not taken a position on whether handheld cell phone use should be banned — though it favors a text-message ban — and even a prominent supporter in the Senate says he doesn’t know whether it can succeed in the House.

“I hope they’ll regard this as a more comprehensive bill,” said Sen. Norman Stone, D-Baltimore County, “but that may be wishful thinking.”


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