A weekend accident on the Capital Beltway that killed five people has given momentum to a proposal for a statewide ban on using cell phones while driving.
For the fourth consecutive year, Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require motorists to pull over or use hands-free devices while talking on the phone.
The proposal, modeled after New York law, is designed to reduce accidents caused by distracted drivers.
The bill was resoundingly defeated in previous years, but some key legislators said lawmakers' minds could change because of reports linking cell-phone use to the accident in Prince George's County.
"I do think the debate will be a lot hotter this year," said House Majority Leader Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who opposed the measure last year. "As for banning cell phones, I am not there yet, but I'm getting closer."
Dawn Richardson, 20, was driving on the beltway near Central Avenue when her newly purchased sport utility vehicle jumped the guardrail and landed on a minivan traveling in the opposite direction. Richardson, of Arlington, Va., and four people from Canada in the minivan were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident because Richardson was apparently talking to her boyfriend on a cell phone when the accident occurred.
"I would think these people dying should affect a lot of people," Arnick said.
Arnick's bill would prohibit using hand-held cellular phones, except when making an emergency call. Those who do could face a fine of up to $500.
Instead, drivers would have to pull over to make their calls or purchase so-called hands-free devices, which cost from $25 to $75.
The Baltimore County delegate acknowledged he faces a tough fight to get the bill passed, but said opposition appears to be softening.
Verizon Wireless, a major supplier of cell phones, recently decided it could support the ban as long as it includes a phase-in period to give people time to buy hands-free devices, a Verizon spokesman said.
Still, a host of other cellular phone companies remain opposed to the ban. And the bill faces strong resistance from some lawmakers who argue that talking on the phone is safer than other possible distractions.
"The bill will have momentum, but we as legislators have to sit back and look at things in perspective," said Del. Daniel B. Riley, a Harford County Democrat.
"I imagine the first time someone turned on the radio in a car and wrecked, someone said let's ban the radio," he said.
A hearing on the bill is scheduled Tuesday before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which defeated Arnick's proposal by a 14-7 vote last year. As in previous years, the committee will hear testimony on the presumed link between cell phones and accidents.
A recent study from the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida found that using a cell phone while driving can increase the risk of an accident by as much as 300 percent.
But the Maryland State Police, which began keeping statistics on accidents caused by cell phones in October, said such accidents appear to be rare.
Lt. Bud Frank, a state police spokesman, said cell phones accounted for one-tenth of 1 percent of all accidents in the past four months. The most common cause is driver inattention, which includes things such as putting on makeup, reading the paper, eating or being distracted by children.
"We are not talking about banning children from cars are we," said Mahlon G. Anderson, director of government affairs for the Mid-Atlantic AAA, which opposes the bill.
A New York law banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving took effect in November. Though New York is the only state with such a ban, similar legislation is pending in many other states and before Congress.
Del. Joan B. Pitkin, a Prince George's County Democrat who cosponsored the bill, said she expected it will be a struggle to get the measure out of committee.
"But I think unfortunately the chances improve every year as these [accident] statistics go up," Pitkin said.