A statewide ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving appeared headed for failure in the Maryland Senate yesterday but was resurrected amid fierce debate and a dramatic reversal by one lawmaker.
The bill would prohibit talking on cell phones or other wireless communications devices while behind the wheel unless drivers use hands-free accessories such as headphone sets equipped with microphones. It also would ban texting while driving. Lawmakers have tried to pass such legislation for a decade but have met with stiff opposition. A final vote is expected next week.
Yesterday, the bill seemed doomed to fail again when senators narrowly voted, 23 to 22, to remove all provisions of the bill except for a ban on texting while driving. Proponents said the altered legislation would be rejected by the House of Delegates, where lawmakers have twice voted down a texting-only ban in committee on concerns that it would be difficult to enforce.
The disappointment of proponents was evident after the vote. Sen. Brian E. Frosh shrugged and frowned in the direction of Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., the Baltimore County Democrat who took up the mantle of fighting for the bill after its longtime sponsor died two years ago. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, serves as chairman of the committee that approved the bill.
Then, after the Senate had moved on to other matters, Sen. Rob Garagiola abruptly stood and asked for a revote on the amendment to the cell phone measure. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, said afterward that he had been confused about the purpose of the amendment and wanted to change his vote.
The chamber was briefly thrown into confusion, and Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican, objected to revisiting the issue, saying: "The die has been cast." To settle the disagreement, the chamber took another vote. And on a 23-to-22 tally, the Senate decided to reconsider the measure Tuesday.
While Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller described the bill as being on "life support," proponents said they believe they have the votes to pass the bill as originally written when two senators who were absent return next week. Supporters argue that the measure is a public-safety priority because the proliferation of technological gadgets adds to driver distraction, a major cause of accidents.
Nonetheless, some lawmakers are expected to maintain their opposition. They argued that drivers are also distracted by putting on makeup in the car or eating, and they questioned whether the legislature would try to prohibit those activities as well.
"If we're going to ban anything, let's ban picking your nose while driving," said Rona E. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, eliciting groans and giggles from her colleagues.
Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who proposed the amendment, said the "most egregious problem" happens when drivers are distracted by reading or writing text messages. "They're taking their thumbs, and they're pushing those little buttons," he said. "Can you imagine people doing that as you're driving down the road?"
Stone said the bill had been changed to appease skeptics. The fines were reduced, with the first-offense penalty halved to $50. Driving while using a hand-held cell phone was made a secondary offense so that motorists could be cited for violating the law only if they were pulled over for another traffic offense. And the ban expires in two years, giving lawmakers time to monitor how it works.
"We tried in this bill to take care of most of the objections in the past," said Stone, who said he promised the family of the late John S. Arnick, a former state delegate from Dundalk who championed the ban, that he would do the same. "I'm sure there are people who would not vote for this bill under any circumstance."