ANNAPOLIS – Opponents of a movement to prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving said Tuesday that education, not prohibition, is the answer to accidents attributed to the practice.
During two hearings in the Senate and House on bills to ban cellular telephone use while driving, representatives of several wireless communication companies argued in favor of education and taking a slower approach to regulation while more information is gathered about accidents.
Lobbyists for Sprint, Verizon Wireless, Nextel Communications and AT&T attended the hearings.
Members of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee grilled the lone supporter of the bill, Frances D. Bents, vice president of Dynamic Science Inc., for almost an hour.
No supporters showed up at the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, and the hearing went quickly.
Both the Senate and House bills prohibit drivers from using a hand-held phone while driving, but allow the use of “hands-free” devices. The Senate bill would allow the use of a hand-held phone if the driver is making an emergency 9- 1-1 call.
Bents’ company, Dynamic Science, does health and safety research for the federal government. Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, who authored the House bill, invited her to speak.
“I have seen the faces of the dead,” Bents said. “I believe the use of cell phones by drivers provide a . . . risk.”
There are 91 million drivers talking on the phone every year, Bents said, and 18 million of them do it on every trip.
Hands-free phones are not safer than hand-held phones, Bents said, because drivers are still distracted by the conversation they are having.
But Delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George’s, said her cell phone twice helped her assist police in making arrests when she followed a suspected drunken driver and a suspected car thief while speaking to the police on the phone.
“For the good of my momma, I’m glad I have a cell phone,” said Benson. Benson said she uses the phone to reassure her aging mother as she’s driving from Baltimore to her mother’s home in Washington County.
Delegate B. Daniel Riley, D-Harford, asked Bents if turning on the radio or pushing the cigarette lighter were distractions that should be outlawed, too.
“Those are momentary driver distractions,” Bents said. “Phone calls take minutes.”
Opponents of the bill spoke with barely any interruptions in the House committee.
Arnick warned his fellow committee members they were “going to hear two arguments: education and education.”
“Nextel, along with our competitors, is continuously educating customers to use common sense when driving,” said Sean Hughes, a lobbyist for Silver Spring’s Nextel Communications.
Education didn’t work for seat belt use or drunken driving, Arnick said.
Opponents also argued there aren’t data available showing cell phone use as the cause of many accidents.
Maryland State Police are collecting data on whether cell phones are contributing factors in accidents. The first report will be available in March.
“So we believe that putting any restrictions now would be putting the cart in front of the horse,” Hughes said.
The State Police could not be reached for comment.
The measure’s Senate reception was promising, with Chairman Baker criticizing its opponents.
“Eleven signed up (to speak) against the bill and 10 of them were lobbyists,” said Baker. “Apparently the cell phone people are more interested in the bottom line than safety. . . . The bottom line is profit. What else?”
Baker is already drawing support from his committee.
“I would have to think if he really, really wants the bill, it’ll pass in committee,” said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester. “You don’t want to vote against your (committee) chairman.”
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