WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are looking anew at proposals to outlaw the use of hand-held phones behind the wheel, after a recent headline-grabbing manslaughter trial in a car crash that involved a cell phone.
Delegate John Arnick, D-Baltimore County, said he will reintroduce his bill calling for fines of up to $500 for drivers caught using hand-held phones. His bill stalled in committee earlier this year, but Arnick believes it has a real chance this year because “more and more people have become aware how dangerous” using cell phones while driving is.
This awareness has led other legislators to act, said Arnick. Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, has introduced a companion bill to Arnick’s in the Senate. And Arnick said a former opponent, Delegate Richard D’Amato, D-Anne Arundel, has agreed to support Arnick’s bill in the 2001 General Assembly.
Baker, the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that his own experience and anecdotal evidence of cellular phone distraction prompted him to introduce his bill.
“I just happened to be riding with a guy and he reached down and got his phone, then ran across two lanes,” Baker said. “I told him to stop and let me out.”
Baker acknowledged that his bill would be just one step toward ridding Maryland’s roads of cell phone-distracted drivers. But he said he has learned from his 22 years in the legislature that you “have to crawl before you can walk … (and) you just got to do what you can do.”
Verizon Wireless officials said they believe data on the impact of using cellular phones in inconclusive, but they will support Arnick’s bill, with some changes from the version that died in committee earlier this year.
Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman, said his company would support a statewide law if it was phased in over several years and if it did not penalize drivers who used their phones to call 911.
“We would really want legislation to be coming from a safety perspective, rather from a position of, `Let’s punish'” wireless users, said Nelson.
But Verizon’s interest in the law is nothing more than a “smart business move,” said critic Frances Bents, vice president of Dynamic Science Inc.
Bents, who has studied the effects of cellular phone-related distractions, said Verizon will be able to sell more airtime if hand-held phones are made illegal, and customers are forced to turn to new hands-free devices.
And she said that legislation preventing hand-held phones does not tackle the real problem.
“You still become absorbed in conversation and are still unaware of your driving situation,” with hands-free devices, said Bents.
She added that if legislators really want to ensure the safety of the state’s drivers, they would enact laws that cover all wireless devices and stipulate that drivers cannot use those devices any time their vehicle is in motion.
But Nelson dismissed Bents’ charges. He also challenged her claim that hands-free phones are no safer than hand-held phones, arguing that common sense dictates that “the more you have both hands on a wheel, the more responsible you are as a driver.”