State lawmakers hear testimony for a ban on texting while driving

The Baltimore Sun

On the day Russell and Kim Hurd were planning to meet their daughter at Walt Disney World in Florida to plan her wedding, a tractor-trailer plowed into her fiance's car, ending the young woman's life at 26.

Russell Hurd told Maryland legislators yesterday that the truck driver had been distracted by text-messaging when he crashed into 10 vehicles stopped at a traffic signal. Heather Hurd and another woman were killed in the pileup near Orlando in January last year.

The lawmakers are considering legislation that would add Maryland to the still-short list of states that ban the practice of sending and receiving text messages while behind the wheel - considered by some experts to be the most dangerous and fastest-growing form of distracted driving. Maryland currently bans texting and cell-phone use only by drivers under 18.

Hurd, who lives in Abingdon in Harford County, said the 61-year-old tractor-trailer driver reported that he had been having trouble with electronic equipment in his truck. The trucker was later given a traffic ticket for careless driving.

"He was trying to send or receive a message from his company," Hurd said. "Because of texting while driving, I will never hold a grandchild born to my daughter. Because of texting while driving, I will never hear my daughter's voice or her little giggle ever again."

He was one of about a dozen witnesses testifying in support of several bills intended to curb the use of cell phones and text-messaging devices while driving.

The General Assembly is considering a menu of bills dealing specifically with texting or cell-phone use and, more generally, with distracted driving. While a ban on hand-held cell phone use by drivers is still considered a long shot, leading lawmakers said there is a growing consensus that the state needs to address text-messaging behind the wheel - an increasingly popular practice among younger drivers.

The Senate passed a watered-down version of a texting ban last year, but the legislation didn't get through the House of Delegates.

This year, Del. Maggie McIntosh, who chairs the House committee with jurisdiction over the issue, has said she intends to deal with the issues of texting and cell phones in some form during the 90-day session. The Baltimore Democrat said the various proposals will be referred to a House Environmental Affairs Committee work group to reach a consensus on an approach.

After a hearing yesterday, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that driving while texting is "clearly dangerous."

"If we can't get a strong cell phone bill, then maybe we can get a strong texting-while-driving prohibition," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Russell Hurd, 49, whose daughter's death prompted him to become an advocate for texting bans in Florida, Maryland and other states, said he hoped legislators would adopt as strong and as broad a bill as possible. He endorsed a proposal by Sen. Mike Lenett, another Montgomery Democrat, that would ban driving while using any kind of hand-held electronic device - whether a cell phone or another text-messaging device.

Lenett's bill would make the use of such devices while driving a "primary" offense - meaning a police officer could pull over a driver for that violation alone. Some other bills would enforce violations as "secondary" offenses, in which an officer could take action only if the motorist were also committing another violation such as speeding.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, seven states - Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington - ban texting while driving. In Louisiana and Washington, it is a secondary violation. Six states - California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Washington - and the District of Columbia ban the use of cell phones while driving unless they are hands-free devices.

No states currently ban all cell phone use, even though some studies have questioned whether hands-free phones are any safer than hand-held devices. Lenett pointed to one British study that found that drivers using cell phones are four times more likely to be involved in crashes than those who are not.

He referred to another showing that drivers using cell phones are as impaired as those with blood alcohol levels of 0.8 percent - the standard for drunk driving in most states.

Lenett told the Senate committee yesterday that while a blanket ban on using cell phones while driving would make the state's roads safer, he did not think Maryland was ready for a total ban.

Pressed by Anne Arundel Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire on the merit of banning driving while holding a cell phone but allowing hands-free devices, Lenett insisted a rational distinction can be made. He said that while research has found little difference between the two in terms of how the mind is affected, a Case Western Reserve University study had found that hand-held phones get in the way of the physical actions of driving.

While legislators appear divided about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving, there appears to be a strong consensus that texting is unacceptable.

"I think texting is completely different from cell phone use," said Del. James Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat who has been tapped to head the House work group handling such bills. "In my opinion, texting is more dangerous than cell phone use."

Surveys have found that driving while texting - known as DWT - is increasingly prevalent in this age of iPhones and BlackBerries. Lenett noted that a recent Zogby poll found that two-thirds of drivers ages 18-24 admitted to driving while texting.

But in some cases, it is younger people who are alerting their elders to the dangers.

David Nevins, co-chairman of the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation, confessed to senators that he formerly sent and received text messages while behind the wheel. The public relations executive said he kicked the habit after his 16-year-old daughter, who had been taught in driver's education class that the practice was dangerous, admonished him.

Nevins said the highway safety foundation supports a strong version of the bill. "It will help us educate people that this is a bad thing to do," he said.

Nathan Chai, 15, was one of a group of home-schooled students from Ellicott City who came to testify in favor of a texting ban after discovering the Hurd family's Web site. Nathan warned senators that the level of electronic distractions for young people in vehicles will only increase in future years.

"Can you imagine video-conferencing while they're driving? Well, I can and it's not pretty," he said.

The various cell phone and texting bills drew no opposition yesterday. Strong versions of the bills received support from physicians' groups, the Maryland State Police and the state Department of Transportation.

Versions of the cell phone ban have been a perennial loser in Annapolis for most of the past decade. But Frosh said he has noticed a gradual erosion of opposition to the legislation. When such bills were introduced in past years, he said, lobbyists for wireless phone companies would turn out in droves to oppose them. At yesterday's Senate hearing, not a single industry lobbyist spoke.

But Frosh said that doesn't mean such legislation will pass easily. "There's still opposition in the Senate. There's still opposition in this committee," he said.

Some of that opposition comes from lawmakers - including many Republicans - who don't want to create additional opportunities for police officers to pull over motorists.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican who opposed last year's bill despite deep concerns about texting while driving, said that is her concern.

"I think it stands a better shot as a secondary offense, but it wouldn't surprise me if it passed as a primary offense," she said.

TEXTING BANS

Seven states prohibit any driver from text messaging:

* Alaska

* California

* Connecticut

* Louisiana

* Minnesota

* New Jersey

* Washington

Nine other states, including Maryland, ban novice drivers such as those with a provisional license or under age 18.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

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