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Bill on cell-phone drivers taps into raised hackles; Cellular firms note advantages; others tell horror stories; General Assembly


Among the most hated people in Maryland may be commuters who drive with cellular phones to one ear, slowing to a crawl or swerving into adjacent lanes while lost in conversation.

Phone-happy drivers were the focus of a three-hour legislative hearing in Annapolis yesterday, as delegates debated a bill that would forbid drivers from using hand-held phones in moving cars.

The proposal, by Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, won immediate endorsement from angry residents who jammed the hearing hall to tell horror stories of roadway encounters with distracted gabbers.

Those testifying said Arnick's bill taps into frustration with telephone-toting commuters who have made driving more perilous.

But the proposed ban also caught the attention of companies that have put those phones in the hands of about 1.5 million Marylanders and 68 million people nationwide. Company officials, joined by an array of business interests, conceded that technology has allowed phoning to intrude on driving, but with some welcome benefits.

Among them, they said, is the ability to call ahead when late, call for directions and call for help.

Several delegates said the ban, which would apply only to hand-held devices, was unlikely to pass. Similar efforts have failed in 17 states.

Still, legislators told Arnick they were grateful for the chance to raise an issue linked to some serious safety concerns.

"To me," Arnick told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, "this is a problem that everyone can understand and relate to. I want us to address it before it becomes any more dangerous."

Studies confirm the dangers are serious: Two years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the coupling of driving and phone chat increased the risk of an accident fourfold.

Maryland State Police do not track the connection between cell phones and accidents. But they say distractions in general -- from phone use to changing compact discs -- contribute to more accidents than any other factor, accounting for 296 fatal wrecks in 1997.

For delegates, one sticking point was whether it was sensible to single out just one distraction. "You see people shaving, putting on makeup, kissing, all sorts of things," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat.

Telephone industry officials seemed to lock onto this point. James Doyle, a lobbyist for Bell Atlantic, said: "The biggest distraction I know is when my wife gets in the car," adding that he meant that in the kindest way.

But he said this issue is serious for phone companies. One industry analyst, Herschel Shosteck of Washington, said 30 percent of residents in this region use cellular phones -- one of the highest rates in the nation.

They added that cell phones can save lives. Susan Perkins, a lawyer for Maryland-based Cellular One, told delegates of a harrowing experience before her conversion to wireless technology.

"I was stranded on the side of the road, at night, in the rain, for 45 minutes," she told the committee. "When a gentleman stopped to help, I had no choice but to get in his car." That, she said, is dangerous.

But for many of those in attendance yesterday, the hearing was simply a chance to voice pent-up feelings about the creeping advancement of cell phones into every corner of life.

Dr. Ann Christopher, a dentist from Northeast Baltimore who heard about the bill while in Annapolis on other business, felt so strongly about cell phones and drivers that she interrupted her schedule to lend support.

"I live across the street from a school, where the parents who are dropping kids off on the way to work always seem to have one ear to the phone," she said. "They have their soccer practices, their 1.2 kids, their 4-by-4's, and they're a holy terror."

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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