ANNAPOLIS – Maryland should follow New York’s lead in banning cell phone use while driving, said a Baltimore County delegate back for a third try at making such a measure law.
The proposed bill contains the same basic principles as its failed predecessors, said Delegate John S. Arnick, who hopes New York’s success will spur the General Assembly to pass similar legislation for Maryland.
“It’s getting more support from legislators and citizens now,” Arnick said. “Legislators are getting vast numbers of complaints from constituents about drivers using hand-held cell phones.”
The New York law took effect Nov. 1, but police were ordered to issue only verbal warnings during a mandated 30-day education period for drivers. As of Dec. 1, the infraction became punishable by a fine of $100, said New York State Police Lt. Jamie Mills.
The proposed Maryland law would take effect Oct. 1, 2002, with a maximum fine of $500 for violators.
Like the New York law, the Maryland bill provides exceptions for cell phone users calling 911 for emergencies, operators of emergency vehicles and employees of public utility companies who use cellular phones on the job.
New York also granted a grace period for ticketed drivers through March 1. Until then, courts will waive any fines levied for defendants supplying proof of purchase of a hands-free device between the date of the violation and the appearance date, Salmon said.
There are no grace periods built into the Maryland bill, but such measures would be “appropriate amendments I would suggest,” said Delegate Joan B. Pitkin, D-Prince George’s, a co-sponsor.
The New York State Assembly passed its cell phone ban last year by an overwhelming 131-19 vote, which did not surprise Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a Democrat and one of that state’s co-sponsors.
Ortiz said his initial proposal for a statewide ban in 1996 was not taken seriously, but over time, the model for his bill earned the support of the governor, Assembly members, citizens and cellular phone companies in New York.
“People knew this was an issue with a lot of merit,” Ortiz said. “The people of the state of New York are proud of it.”
Legislators in several other states, including Maryland, support New York’s model, Ortiz said, predicting several states will adopt it soon.
The New York State Police cited 303 people in December for using hand-held cell phones, said Capt. David Salmon.
It is too early to determine whether those citations have reduced the number of cell-phone-related accidents, said Salmon.
“We’ve never had accident report forms to report incidents involving cell phones,” Salmon said. “Since the law passed, we have new forms, so we’ll be able to get a better feel for accidents caused by drivers using or dialing hand-held cell phones.”
Data correlating cell phone use and accident rates has been unavailable in Maryland because police had no place on accident reports to indicate whether a cell phone user was at fault, said Charon Wicker, spokeswoman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association.
Such data should be available soon, Wicker said, as Maryland State Police have recently joined only six other states in monitoring the role cell phones play in crashes.
The bill failed in previous years because many legislators saw it as unfair to distinguish cell phones from other distractions that contribute to a driver’s lack of focus, such as changing the radio, eating or attending to children, said Delegate James E. Malone Jr., D-Balitmore County, chairman of the Motor Vehicles Subcommittee that will review the bill.
“As a lieutenant in the fire department, I can tell you that we have (Interstates) 695 and 895 in our district,” Malone said. “I’ve seen people every day driving with just their two knees doing all those things.”
Delegate Barry Glassman, R-Harford, is one of the many Maryland lawmakers who opposed the ban in the past, and likely will this session.
“I don’t think it’s got any steam behind it,” he said.
Representatives of the cellular phone industry espouse the belief in education over legislation to solve the problem.
“What we want legislators to do is address the issue in its entirety — inattentive driving — and not just single out cell phone users,” said Dee Yankoskie, manager of wireless education programs at Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Associates, an organization that represents the wireless industry with lawmakers. “You can’t legislate common sense.”
Many cellular phone companies have made technological advancements and customer service efforts to facilitate the use of hands-free devices for their customers.
AT&T Wireless, for example, now provides new customers a complimentary hands-free device with the purchase of a new phone, Yankoskie said, and includes coupons for the purchase of these devices in billing statements.
In addition, many companies now employ technologies such as voice recognition and speaker phone systems, which allow drivers to dial, answer, converse and hang up without ever taking their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel. A date should be set next week for the bill to appear before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, Pitkin said. – 30 – CNS-1-11-02