House passes cell phone ban

Rachel Wisner of Taneytown says she may defy it. Kristine Olaes of Pigtown says she'll reluctantly comply with it. But one way or another, a ban on talking on hand-held cell phones while driving is poised to become the law in Maryland starting Oct. 1.

With Friday's landmark 125-14 House of Delegates vote in favor of the ban, the measure goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has said he would sign it.

The adoption of the legislation would place Maryland among a handful of states to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving for motorists of all ages. Advocates say the bill will save lives by reducing the distractions drivers encounter behind the wheel.

The bill would make using a hand-held cell phone — including taking photos or video — while behind the wheel a secondary offense, allowing police officers to pull someone over for a violation only if they observed the driver committing some other offense — such as speeding or following too closely.

A first offense would be punishable by a $40 fine, subsequent offenses by $100. The ban would not apply to hands-free technology such as Bluetooth devices. Nor would it affect calls taking place while the car is not in motion, for example, at a red light.

The bill's approval prompted a mixed reaction, from enthusiastic approval to stubborn resistance.

Wisner, a 37-year-old administrator of an online service for moms, called the legislation "a really dumb idea."

"Talking on your phone while you're driving? What do you do if you get lost?" she said. "You have to be responsible for yourself and I'm tired of the government trying to tell me how to act [so as] not to pay a fine."

Still, Wisner said the $40 fine wouldn't deter her from talking on her cell phone while driving if she felt she needed to.

"I don't think there will be many occasions where I defy the law, but it's possible that I will," she said. Using a hands-free device is not an option, she said, because "it hurts my ear."

Olaes, a 21-year-old office manager and student, was no more enthusiastic about the ban, saying she occasionally calls her boyfriend on the way to the grocery store to see what to pick up.

"You should leave some of the liberties and freedoms alone when it comes to passing legislation," she said.

Despite her reservations, Olaes said she would comply with the ban.

"I'm not a lawbreaker, so I would follow it," she said.

But advocates for highway safety were cheered by the news, even if they would have preferred a "primary" bill allowing traffic stops for cell phone use alone.

"We're thrilled," said David Nevins, co-chairman of the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation. "We didn't even think this was a realistic possibility when the session began and we're delighted it has passed. Our organization's research and positions show that it will have a dramatic effect on drivers' safety in Maryland."

Keshia Pollack, assistant professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, said a primary offense law would have been preferable but contended that a secondary law can still make an impact.

"We do think these types of things are effective in reducing cell phone use while driving," Pollack said. "It's a great step forward for this state."

The bill that passed, known as the Delegate John Arnick Electronic Communications Traffic Safety Act of 2010, is named after the longtime lawmaker who first proposed a ban in the 1990s and repeatedly reintroduced bills until his death in 2006. It was sponsored by his friend and legislative colleague from Dundalk, Democratic Sen. Norman Stone, who told colleagues he had been in a serious crash caused by a driver who was talking on a cell phone.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the committee that unanimously approved the legislation, recalled that when Arnick first introduced the measure, hundreds of people would come to testify against it. This year, she said, not one person signed up in opposition.

McIntosh said that when Arnick introduced the original bill, there were two things you could do with a cell phone: make a call or receive a call.

Now, she said, "you can play games, you can get on Facebook, you can tweet" — among many other functions she listed. "We all know that people are multitasking. They're not just making phone calls." She said the bill would cover a range of activities including taking photos or video with a cell phone while driving. The law provides some exceptions for emergency situations and also for law enforcement and emergency personnel acting in an official capacity.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican who offered a series of amendments that failed by large margins, said drivers were also subject to many distractions that don't involve cell phones — shaving, applying makeup, reading books and newspapers among them.

"You can't legislate everything people do behind the wheel," he said. "Protect our freedoms. Stop the nanny state."

But other Republicans, while wary of government regulation, said years of experience with cell phone distractions on the road had persuaded them it was time to act.

"I have found myself at the State House without remembering how I got there the last 20 minutes," said Del. Andrew A. Serafini.

Among the loudest opponents of regulating cell phones in Arnick's day were the state's real estate agents, who do much of their work on the road.

But Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said what was a cause for outrage in 2000 is a non-issue among his members 10 years later.

"They either have a car that's Bluetooth-equipped or they're using a hands-free device all the time," he said.

Landers said Realtors are as much affected by distracted drivers as anybody.

"They spend a lot of time on the roads, so they get behind people who are going 30 mph in a 60 mph lane while they have a phone to their ear," he said.

The strong House vote contrasts with the narrow, 24-23 margin by which the measure passed the Senate. In the Senate most Republicans opposed the bill, but in the House more than half supported it on the final vote, including Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell and Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, Maryland would join six other states in explicitly banning the use of hand-held cell phones by all drivers. Those states — California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington — would differ from Maryland by making it a primary offense. The District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have also enacted such bans, and some consider Utah's distracted-driving law the equivalent of a cell phone ban.

Last year, Maryland took the first step toward curbing the distraction of electronic devices behind the wheel by adopting a ban on texting while driving. A bill extending that ban to reading text messages while driving is pending in the Senate but and expected to pass.

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