Ban on holding cell phones while driving gains in Senate

Maryland's Senate wants motorists to keep both hands on the steering wheel, giving initial approval Tuesday to a measure that outlaws holding a cell phone while driving.

The bill does not ban the use of cell phones -- drivers would be allowed to chat using a headset while navigating traffic. Also, senators reduced the fine for violations to $40; a companion measure in the House carries a $100 fine.

"My constituents are on the road and see people with one hand on the wheel and one on the phone and want that to end," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "And so do I."

Others argued going further and banning all cell phone conversations on the road. "The danger comes from engaging your mind in the conversation," said Sen. Rona E. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The measure as written, she argued, merely encourages Marylanders to buy headsets for their phones. "I would proffer that we are asking our constituents to flush money down the toilet," she said.

Sen. Michael G. Lenett acknowledged that bill might not prevent the "cognitive" distraction from yammering while driving, but he said it does end the "physical distraction" of having a phone instead of the steering wheel in your hand.

The legislation passed after a session that extended late Monday night mostly due to a series of eleven amendments offered by Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, who tried repeatedly to weaken the bill. The Senate has to vote one more time on the measure to pass it.

"It is a poorly drafted bill," Pipkin said. "It is going to make criminals out of hundreds of thousands of Marylanders." He attempted to carve out exceptions for drivers to adjust the volume on the cell phone, use a GPS and change music while driving.

Pipkin also wanted the Senate to allow parents and children to call each other. When that failed he tried to make an exception for state highway workers. Another Pipkin idea was making the offense a violation only if the driver got into an accident.

The amendments were all voted down, with Sen. Brian Frosh handling most of the rebuttals.

Others just became exasperated by the long discussion.

"Can we put these on a consent calendar?" asked Baltimore Democrat Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, hoping to group the amendments together to be rejected in one fell swoop. Later, as pages passed out another Pipkin amendment, McFadden sighed. "Here we go again," he said to nobody in particular.

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