Time to stiffen law against driving while talking on a cellphone [Editorial]

People may scoff at the idea of cracking down on talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving, but we believe this is reckless and harmful behavior, as borne out by statistics.

That's why we support a bill proposed by Del. James Malone, who represents District 12A including part of Catonsville and Arbutus, that would make talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving a primary offense. It mirrors a bill adopted last year that makes texting while driving a primary offense.

Such behavior is currently a secondary offense, meaning a driver must be committing some other violation to be charged with talking on a cellphone. If adopted, the bill would mean drivers could be pulled over and charged merely for the cellphone violation. Violators could face a $500 fine and a point on their driver's license.

The measure would leave hands-free cellphone conversations while driving legal.

In traffic studies, 69 percent of drivers surveyed admitted to talking on a cellphone while driving. At least a quarter of traffic accidents can be attributed to people talking on cellphones.

Opponents usually have two arguments, and one is the "Big Brotherism" — the state has no right to regulate my behavior in my own car. That might wash if the driver is endangering only himself or herself and was only risking a one-car crash. All too often, however, the victims include people in other cars and pedestrians.

Another argument wonders why talking on a cellphone is any different from talking to a passenger. Yet there is a difference, and studies demonstrate it.

Driver and passenger are both observant of traffic conditions and adjust their conversation accordingly. They might stop talking in a tight spot or the passenger might offer navigation advice.

When the person on the other end of the driver's conversation is not in the car, he or she is oblivious to the conditions facing the driver. This disconnect can leave the driver distracted at a dangerous moment, unable to focus on the problem at hand.

Cellphone use is now so ubiquitous that the danger inherent in driving while phoning can no longer be ignored. We hope the General Assembly gets behind this bill.

"Now is the time," said Del. Malone, a former Baltimore County firefighter and current chairman of the Motor Vehicles and Transportation subcommittee of the House of Delegates' Environmental Matters Committee.

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