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Two bills target distracted drivers

January 24, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - Two bills targeting unsafe motorists - including cell-phone yakkers - were debated Tuesday by a state Senate committee.

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County, has introduced a bill that penalizes "distracted driving," inattention caused by such things as "reading, writing, performing personal grooming (or) interacting with animals" while at the wheel.

Stone's bill also prohibits motorists from using their hands to operate a wireless communication device, including a cell phone, while driving. Only hands-free phone use would be allowed.

A separate bill introduced by Sen. Michael G. Lenett, D-Montgomery, imposes the same ban on the use of handheld cell phones, but he said the penalties are lighter than in Stone's bill.

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The bills were brought up together at a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing Tuesday, but they didn't have the same support.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, a nonprofit driving advocacy organization, supports the distracted-driving proposal, but believes Lenett's cell-phone restriction bill needs to be stronger, AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella testified.

Representatives from the Maryland Motorcoach Association, the Maryland School Bus Contractors Association and airport transportation company SuperShuttle pushed for an amendment to the distracted-driving bill, so bus and shuttle-van drivers may use walkie-talkies and two-way radios while driving.

In written testimony, the Maryland Investigators and Security Association said it opposes both bills because they might hinder the work of security officers and private detectives.

Gary Hurewitz, the Northeast manager for government affairs for Sprint Nextel, testified that cell-phone use shouldn't be singled out as more dangerous than any another distraction.

In fact, Maryland State Police data shows that improper lane changes were responsible for 10 times as many vehicle accidents as cell-phone usage the last three years, according to lobbyist Kimberly Burns, representing Sprint Nextel.

"A cell phone is a potential cause of distracted driving," Hurewitz said, "but so is a compact disc."

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil/Harford, agreed, suggesting that potato chips might be banned from cars if a motorist swerves while trying to pick one up.

The committee took no action.

After the hearing, committee member Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he has voted against cell-phone bans the last several years, but he might support a broader bill regulating distracted driving.

"It's not logical to go after just the cell-phone use when there are other activities in the car that are equally or more distracting," he said.

Lenett, however, argued during the hearing that handheld cell-phone conversations can dominate motorists' attention. Drivers also cut down their own field of vision when cell phones are pressed against their ears, he said.

Lenett said four states and Washington, D.C., have a total ban on driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, while other states have lesser restrictions.

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