ANNAPOLIS Hang up your cell phone and put your hands on the wheel.
That’s the message Maryland residents will get if lawmakers approve a bill to ban driving while phoning. A Baltimore County Democrat introduced the legislation in the House of Delegates last week.
“I’ve had a lot of complaints about people who have been hit by people (talking) on mobile telephones or who have witnessed accidents involving them,” said Delegate John Arnick, the bill’s author.
It’s a great idea, said Montgomery County Police Traffic Sgt. Larry Jerman.
“I almost got run over by a person talking on a cellular phone this morning,” he said.
While he favors the idea, House of Delegates Majority Leader John Hurson, D-Montgomery, said he does not know how he would vote on it.
“The safety issue has to be explored,” he said. “I think it should be discussed further in the legislative process.”
The bill will have a rough time getting out of committee, said Delegate John Wood, D-St. Mary’s, acting chairman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which will hear the bill within the next few weeks. Wood said he doesn’t think he could approve such a bill.
“So many people here use cellular phones,” he said. “I think people out here would raise a little devil about that.”
More than 66 million people use mobile phones nationwide, according to Tim Ayers, vice president for communications at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
So far, little more than anecdotal evidence exists to connect cell phone use to accident rates.
“There are no statistics on it in Maryland,” said David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “There’s nothing on a police report that quantifies the role (of cellular phones in accidents), but you know it’s there. You can see people out there with their phones, but you can’t pinpoint it.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Automobile Association have researched the link between mobile phone use and traffic accidents but admit they have found little statistical evidence to analyze. Only two states, Minnesota and Oklahoma, use police accident report forms with space for information on cellular phone use.
An article in the Feb. 13, 1997, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine said people who talk on a cellular phone while driving increase their accident risk four-fold. The study looked at 699 drivers with cellular phones who were involved in motor vehicle accidents.
“Cell phones do cause a bit of a distraction for drivers, but so do most technological advances, like CD players and radios,” said Liz Valuet, public affairs specialist for AAA’s Mid-Atlantic Region. “Even a crying child or another passenger can cause a distraction.”
The automobile association does not support the bill, Valuet said.
“That kind of takes it to the extreme,” she said. “If you start to ban cell phones, would the next thing be CD players or tape players or radios altogether?”
Lawmakers have proposed bills such as this one in approximately 20 states, and they have never passed, Ayers said. The ideas behind the bill already exist in driving laws across the United States that regulate inattentive driving.
“If you’re on a cell phone, weaving or driving dangerously, you can be arrested today with our current laws,”he said.
Mobile phones’ safety value far outweighs the risks, said Audrey Schaefer, spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic Mobile, one of Maryland’ leading cellular phone companies. Drivers can report unsafe driving, request help with car problems or call for emergency assistance in accidents with a mobile telephone.
People use mobile phones to make more than 18 million emergency calls a year, according to a AAA brochure titled, “The Vital Link.”
“It’s everybody’s job to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road,” Schaefer said. “I surely hope people don’t discredit the benefits of the phones, though.”
Lawmakers need to give drivers the benefit of the doubt, and drivers need to act safely, according to Valuet. She recommends pulling onto the side of the road to dial a mobile phone or to engage in an intense conversation. She said she gives the same advice to drivers who reprimand children while driving or get in heated debates with passengers. “Drivers just need to be cautious and use common sense,” she said. -30-