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Bill would outlaw cell phone use for drivers

January 30, 2001

Bill would outlaw cell phone use for drivers



By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer


ANNAPOLIS - Using a hand-held cell phone while driving can be a deadly distraction, supporters of a bill to outlaw the practice testified at Maryland General Assembly committee hearings Tuesday.

"I have seen the faces of death. I know the stories of the injured and I believe cell phones represent an unnecessary risk," testified Fran Bents, who conducts highway safety research for Dynamic Science Inc. of Annapolis.

While there aren't any studies on the role that cell phones play in accidents, she estimated their use causes from 600 to 1,200 highway deaths a year.

In one case, a child died when her mother reached for her cell phone and her vehicle hit a tree. Another accident that killed two people was caused by a man who ran off the Beltway while dialing his cell phone, she said.

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Maryland would become the first state in the nation to restrict cell phone use, the bill's sponsor, Del. John S. Arnick, told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

Sixteen county governments across the country have approved restrictions on cell phone calls while driving, said Arnick, D-Baltimore.

Arnick said he has gotten an increasing number of complaints about distracted drivers since he first introduced the bill in 1999.

The Commerce and Government Matters Committee has previously killed the bill and may do so again this year.

One committee member, Del. Joanne C. Benson, said she got a cell phone to calm the fears of her 82-year-old mother who lives in Washington County. She has used it responsibly, even calling 911 to report road hazards and emergencies.

"There's another side to this story. It boils down to common sense," said Benson, D-Prince George's.

Three local lawmakers serve on the committees that will decide the issue.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he was leaning toward a "no" vote because he doesn't believe government can protect people from every risk.

He noted that the Maryland State Police didn't take a position.

"They're the ones who are going to be enforcing the law. Our state troopers and sheriff's deputies have more important things to do with their time catching criminals and lawbreakers," he said.

Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, who serves on the Commerce and Government Matters Committee with Shank, was absent because of a family emergency.

In the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/ Washington, said he doesn't support the bill.

"I think we need to take a more comprehensive look at all distractions," such as eating and reading while driving, he said.

Mooney said he would consider a crackdown on people who engage in distracting behavior while driving.

Representatives of the cell phone industry, which has 600,000 customers in the state, testified against the bill.

Robert Enten, a lobbyist representing Cingular Wireless, formerly known as Cellular One, said the state should study the problem before passing a law.

Other lobbyists said the industry tries to educate its customers on safe use of the phones.

Supporters said that is like putting the tobacco industry in charge of anti-smoking efforts.

Even though the bill would exempt emergency calls, it would have a chilling effect on cell phone users, said Cary B. Hinton, lobbyist for Sprint.

Finally, opponents said the idea is anti-business.

"This bill would send a message to the business community that Maryland is restricting use of technology," said Sean Hughes of Nextel.

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