Arnick revives proposed ban on drivers using cell phones

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland lawmakers were urged yesterday to adopt one of the nation's most sweeping prohibitions on inattentive driving - a measure that would forbid the use of hand-held cellular phones along with other distracting behavior.

Del. John S. Arnick, who has unsuccessfully championed a ban on driving while chatting on cell phones since 1999, took a new approach yesterday as he presented this year's version of the legislation to the House Environmental Matters Committee.

His bill, based on a District of Columbia statute that went into effect last year, would make it illegal to drive "in an inattentive manner" while engaging in a variety of distracting activities, including using cell phones and other electronic devices.

"I think it's better with the distracted-driving approach," said Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat.

If enacted, Maryland would join New York, New Jersey and the District in forbidding drivers to use their hands to operate cellular phones. The Maryland bill also applies to text messaging devices, personal digital assistants and laptop computers.

The Arnick proposal - like the Washington law - would go further by specifying that reading, writing, grooming oneself, playing with pets and adjusting cargo are also distracting activities that could earn a driver a ticket. The proposal contains specific provisions forbidding all nonemergency uses of cell phones by school bus drivers or drivers with learner's permits.

Arnick said this year's legislation should avoid the criticism that it unfairly singles out one form of driving distraction and makes it illegal. That argument has helped lead to the bill's defeat in past years.

The changes were not enough to eliminate the opposition of the cellular phone industry, as Sprint Corp. and Nextel Communications sent representatives to urge its defeat.

"There is still no evidence that the use of hand-held cell phones contribute to the rate of accidents or fatalities," said Cary B. Hinton, Sprint's northeastern regional staff director.

The Maryland State Police did not take a position on the bill, but spokesman Sgt. Thornnie Rouse said cell phone use is involved in less than 1 percent of the traffic accidents in the state. In 2003, he said, cell phones were listed as a contributing cause in 226 out of more than 200,000 accidents - with none of those crashes involving fatalities.

Nevertheless, the bill received support from the American Automobile Association, which said polls of its membership show overwhelming support of curbs on cell phone-using drivers.

"One of the key issues the AAA members see is really aggressive and distracted drivers, and this is one of the elements to dealing with distracted driving," said AAA lobbyist Gilbert Genn.

The issue of cell phones and driving has come up in virtually every state legislature in the nation, but only a handful have enacted strong curbs on their use. More have enacted laws pre-empting localities from adopting their own bans.

Arnick's previously proposed cell phone bans died in committee - last year by a 13-7 vote.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the Environmental Matter Committee, said she doubts there is enough support for a sweeping ban but believes there may be sentiment in favor of restricting the use of cell phones by inexperienced drivers.

"Driver distraction is the No. 1 cause of deaths and accidents among teens," she said.

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