After coming closer to becoming law than it has in a decade, a bill that would have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving died yesterday in a House of Delegates committee.
National momentum has been building for such bans, which traffic safety advocates say prevent accidents and save lives, and this month the legislation passed in the Maryland Senate for the first time. But it was defeated by a 12-9 vote in the House Environmental Matters Committee, which has killed similar bills in recent years.
"A lot of people had concerns," said Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee that overwhelmingly urged a defeat of the measure. "Do you say you can't use a cell phone, but it's OK to eat, drink, read and put on makeup while driving?"
Sen. Mike Lenett, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill, took comfort in the close vote and said he was encouraged about the proposal's chances next year.
"We made tremendous progress," Lenett said, noting that, until this year, legislation to ban talking on cell phones while driving had never gotten out of committee in either chamber. "We'll come back with it next time, when a few more states have approved it."
Nearly 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws restricting cell phone use while driving, and every state legislature in the country has considered variations on such legislation in the past three years, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
But the debate in Maryland revealed a degree of ambivalence about the idea. Motorists - including state lawmakers - said they thought using a hand-held cell phone while driving was probably dangerous, though they admitted to doing it themselves.
Sprint Nextel lobbied against the bill, even as company executives said they would make money if it passed, through the sale of hands-free headsets. AAA Mid- Atlantic declined to take a position on the most closely watched traffic law bill of the year.
"We would really like to see a more comprehensive distracted-driver piece of legislation," said Ragina Averella, AAA's manager of public and government affairs. "We don't want to send a message that it's OK to talk on the phone so long as you have a head piece, because that's still a distraction."
Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, proposed a bill last year making distracted driving a traffic offense, but it never got a committee vote.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House committee and supported the bill, said proponents have reason for optimism.
"I'm encouraged, too," said McIntosh, whose committee will study the issue this summer in connection with laws regulating teenage drivers. "My sense is it will be a closer vote" next time around, she said.
Under Lenett's legislation - which survived days of ardent debate, amendments and parliamentary maneuvers in the Senate - drivers could have used cell phones if they were equipped with hands-free accessories. A first-offense penalty of $50 would have been waived if the offender acquired hands-free gear.
From 1999 to 2006, Del. John S. Arnick of Dundalk sponsored various bills that would have barred the use of hand-held cell phones by motorists. When Arnick died in 2006, Lenett and Stone took up the cause.
Proponents of the ban say that drivers' handling phones and the increasingly prevalent practice of typing messages while behind the wheel increase the likelihood of driver distraction, which accounts for more than 1 million car crashes a year.
A 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that cell phone use is the most common distraction for drivers.
But lobbyists for Sprint Nextel and skeptical lawmakers pointed to accident statistics from the Maryland State Police that list cell phones as causing only one-half of 1 percent of all crashes.
Opponents of the ban also argued that laws against distracted driving are already on the books and noted that in some circumstances, having access to a cell phone makes motoring safer.
"A lot of women work at night and drive by themselves," said Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who voted against the bill. "When I'm driving, I often call my husband if I'm nervous about someone following me."
The measure that passed in the Senate was less stringent than the one Lenett originally introduced. Police would have been able to cite drivers for using cell phones only if they were stopped for another reason, and first offenders would have had no points assessed on their driving records. The ban would have expired after two years unless the legislature renewed it.
Del. Saqib Ali, a Montgomery County Democrat who supported the bill, said "it's not too much of an imposition to ask people to get speaker phones or an ear piece. ... All it costs is $30 to $40."
Ali called the relatively close vote in committee "quite amazing," noting that most lawmakers have "hardened positions" on the issue after years of debate.
Sun reporter Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.