Hand-Held Cell Phone Ban Considered By Legislators

OCEAN CITY – Driving while text messaging and talking on cell phones may be the norm for many Maryland motorists, but a recently proposed Senate bill that opts to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving could bring that habit to a screeching halt, that is if it is passed.

Senator Michael G. Lenett introduced the bill, entitled “vehicle law-use of wireless communication devices while driving-prohibitions” this week in an effort to push through legislation that has failed to gain majority support in past years.

The bill calls for “prohibiting a driver of a motor vehicle that is in motion from using the driver’s hands to use specified wireless communication devices except under specified circumstances.” Simply stated, if passed, motorist could be facing fines for use of hand-held cell phones.

For years, the issue of “distracted driving” has come to the forefront, with senators across the country pushing to pass legislation that would enforce penalties for distracted driving. Definitions of distracted driving have ranged from the more common, attending to pets or children, to the more extreme, shaving, reading or typing last minute e-mails on laptops. Cell phones have inevitably climbed the list of distracters, causing many states to ban their use while driving or at least consider it.

New York, Connecticut, Washington, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation that ban the use of cell-phones while driving, and some Maryland lawmakers, particularly Lenett, are hoping to follow en suite.

The idea has been floating around the Maryland General Assembly for nearly a decade and several bills have been presented in an effort to regulate distracted driving but to no avail.

Currently the only laws in Maryland that target cell phone use while driving are aimed at the 18-and-under crowd, prohibiting young drivers from chatting or texting on mobile devices while driving.

The annotated code requires a driver to be “aware, alert, and not operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner,” but while the annotated code specifically mentions earplugs, headsets and earphones, it does not go as far as categorizing cell phone use as a deterrent to alert driving.

Lenett’s bill, if passed, would prohibit the use of any wireless communication device except in the case of an emergency. The bill would call for a $100 fine for the first offense and would call for a $250 fine for a second or subsequent offense. Hands-free devices would be allowed under the new law.

The bill has drawn supporters and opponents over the years and will likely do so again in 2008. Supporters cite inattentive driving as a direct result of cell phone use while driving, aiming to save lives and limit accidents through the passing of the bill. Several studies have gone as far as to rate cell phone use while driving as equal to or worse than driving drunk.  According to a University of Utah study published in the 2006 issue of “Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society,” “Impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.”

Opponents raise a number of concerns regarding the proposed bill. Many question whether talking on a hands-free phone would be any less distracting. A 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that dialing is not the only distraction caused by cell phones. The study ironically was cited in House Bill 86, which was introduced in Maryland in 2007 in an effort to prohibit, distracted driving.

According to the proposed bill, which was not passed, “The study concluded that the most common distraction for drivers is cell phone use. Also, the number of crashes and near-crashes resulting from dialing a cell phone was nearly identical to the number resulting from listening or talking.”

The study causes many to question whether talking on a hands free phone would be any less distracting.

Others argue that cell phones are not the most prominent distraction while driving.

According to House Bill 1152-Department of Legislative Services, introduced to the Maryland General Assembly in 2004, “Studies by the University of Utah and the Swedish National Road Administration have indicated that wireless phone use, even if the device is hands-free, is not any safer than driving with a hand-held wireless phone. Preliminary results from a University of North Carolina study, however, indicated that telephone use is only the eighth most distracting activity that drivers engage in, with distraction from activities like changing radio stations and eating more prevalent.” The 2004 bill also aimed to put controls on distracted driving but failed to pass.

With Lenett’s bill in the preliminary stages, it remains to be seen whether it will garner enough support this year to pass through the house, or how it will be enforced on our local level.

Lenett could not be reached for a comment.

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