Driven to distraction: What will they ban next?

ANNAPOLIS — April 13, 2012

State legislators voted to close drive-throughs yesterday in a late-night, pizza-fueled frenzy in which they passed 20 other bills in the last minutes before the end of the session.

They said the ban, part of legislation outlawing eating while driving, will save lives. They also described it as one more victory in the war against distracted driving, which studies show is a major cause of accidents. Other distractions on the hit list: GPS systems, smoking, applying makeup, radios, Hooters billboards — and passengers, who may be required to be silent in coming years.

"We did not have the votes for a comprehensive ban on all distractions this year," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "But we're hopeful we'll push it through next year."

Fast food chain restaurant owners were blindsided by the vote, they said. "How can you ban drive-throughs?" said Mike Schmidt, who owns a McDonald's in Annapolis. "They are the quintessential American dining experience."

Another said there was no way to enforce it, since people could buy food to go and still eat in their cars. "Are they going to station cops outside our driveways, like bars?" asked Michelle Smith, who owns a Taco Bell in Dundalk.

Legislators could not say whether the ban would stop people from eating in their cars, pointing out that after hand-held cell phones and texting were banned in New Jersey, the number of people who admitted to texting while driving rose, according to a study by Fairleigh Dickinson University of New Jersey drivers.

Maryland has not analyzed whether its ban on using hand-held devices two years ago has reduced accidents. But Maryland reports $2 million higher revenue this year from tickets related to it.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it didn't matter whether the bill worked. "We needed to do something. We can tinker with it later." He said banning drive-throughs was the logical next step after banning texting and talking on hand-held cell phones while driving in 2010 and then extending the ban last year to any use of a cell phone while driving.

The fiscal analysis attached to the bill said it would generate $15 million in fines for the next budget year, a tiny drop in the state's $2 billion structural deficit. Since no other state has banned drive-throughs, Department of Legislative Services analysts said the figure was only a "guesstimate," however.

One mother questioned how legislators could enforce this law or a stricter one next year.

"My son doesn't listen to legislators," said Baltimore City resident Marie Campbell, mother to Thomas, 18 months. "He doesn't even listen to me," she said. The harried mom says the only time she has to eat most mornings is in the car and questioned how legislators intend to force toddlers to be quiet if they pursue a stronger bill next year.

Others wondered whether police would be distracted from catching speeders and other dangerous drivers in their quest to root out motoring masticators.

And one convenience store owner worried if his chips and other snacks would be next on legislators' hit list. "When legislators doubled the cigarette tax, I lost a quarter of my business," said Greg Ali, who owns a Royal Farms in Rockville. "If they ban snack food, I'm a goner."

He said he was scouting new locations to open his business in Virginia, where "legislators are less schizophrenic."

Anti- obesity groups praised the bill for one of its unintended consequences. "From now on, hungry motorists will have to eat their fast food the slow food way, sitting in a chair at a table, or face a ticket," said Tracy Delgado, an obesity researcher at Johns Hopkins University. She said the drive-through ban was a good first step to forcing people to eat healthier and hoped it would prompt legislators to consider banning all processed food.

David Kessler, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and author of "The End of Overeating," praised Maryland as a "model for other states to follow to help people help themselves."

Legislators are exempted from the ban on eating in their cars if they are on en route to Annapolis during the session or on legislative business, according to the law.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is

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