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Limits eyed on cell use in cars

The Baltimore Sun

Legislators will try again this year to ban hand-held cell phone use and text messaging while driving, hoping that nationwide momentum for such laws will propel the bill's passage.

"This is an extremely important public safety measure," said Sen. Mike Lenett, the sponsor, speaking through his hands-free cell phone earpiece while driving last week. "Everyone has had the experience of being nearly involved in an accident with somebody who's talking on a cell phone. I have experienced near misses. I really have, and I think the public is extremely supportive of this bill. Why should Maryland be the last state in the union to recognize that this is an important public policy measure?"

Maryland lawmakers, including Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat, have tried to bar cell phone use while driving for a decade without success. But the idea has been gaining traction nationally, with bans in effect in four states - Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Washington - as well as the District of Columbia, according to Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. A ban will take effect July 1 in California.

States across the country are considering varying bans, Sundeen said, with 29 examining barring younger drivers from using cell phones and six states considering bans on text messaging.

"The issue has kind of taken off over the last 10 years," Sundeen said. "Driver inattention has been a potential problem since we've had cars, but it's not since we've started to see these cell phones and wireless devices in cars that we started to see legislative attention."

A 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that although the act of talking on a cell phone while driving poses a statistically insignificant risk, the act of dialing while driving almost triples the risk of an accident.

Lenett's proposal, which is scheduled for a hearing today by the Judicial Proceedings Committee, would impose a $100 fine for the first offense and a $250 fine for a subsequent offense. The penalty could be waived on the first offense if a driver could prove purchase of a hands-free device. Calls to 911 would be excluded from any penalty.

Maryland now prohibits drivers younger than 18 who hold a learner's permit or provisional license from talking on hand-held cell phones.

"Last year, it was an extremely close issue in committee," Lenett said. "But I think that momentum is increasing. Every year, more and more states enact this law."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the committee chairman, said he supports the bill.

"I hear from folks all the time, both pro and con," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I can't say you can say there is a consensus on this issue, neither in my district or statewide, but I think people are becoming increasingly concerned."

Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Republican who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties, argued that while "cell phone use, texting while driving are certainly problematic," to be fair, other distractions such as "women putting makeup on, men shaving," would also have to be banned.

"It's one of those knee-jerk things," the Senate minority leader said. "We're going to pass a bill and it's not going to solve a darn thing. We've had this before. But who knows, this legislature very well may pass it. This legislature has been known to do some things that I think are wrong."

A representative for AAA Mid-Atlantic said the group would not support Lenett's proposal.

"While AAA certainly would support any legislation that would outlaw text messaging while driving, basically we have received mixed messages from our members regarding the outlaw or ban of cell phones while driving," said Ragina C. Averella, a spokeswoman for the group. "There are other behaviors that take place while one is driving that are equally dangerous."

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., who sponsored similar legislation last year, said he supports the bill. Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat, was spurred to act by an accident that totaled his car when a driver using a cell phone failed to obey a stop sign, and also by a promise he made to the provision's longtime sponsor.

John S. Arnick of Dundalk long sponsored legislation to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving. The longtime state delegate first introduced the legislation in 1999, according to the Department of Legislative Services. After the former delegate's death in 2006, Stone promised the Arnick family that he would continue the effort.

"Obviously Delegate Arnick was way ahead of his time," said Stone, who said he chose to defer to Lenett rather than introduce competing legislation.

Arnick's legislation was broader and included a penalty for "distracted driving," which includes "reading, writing, performing personal grooming, interacting with animals, adjusting cargo," or engaging in any other activities that would take attention from the road, provisions that Lenett and Stone concede could have hurt the bill.

Lenett said the state already has a law prohibiting negligent driving, which would cover many of those scenarios.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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