ANNAPOLIS – Phoning while driving has become “epidemic,” said the sponsor of a bill to ban the practice at a Tuesday hearing, and current laws are inadequate to prevent the kind of tragedy that claimed five lives in Prince George’s County on Feb. 1.
Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, is hoping that reports linking the accident to cellular telephone use will prompt approval from the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which has twice rejected the measure.
There was “no question” the driver of the sport-utility vehicle that hurtled over a guardrail on the Capital Beltway and landed on a minivan traveling in the opposite direction was using a cell phone when the incident happened, Arnick said.
“No question maybe the guardrail was insufficient,” Arnick said. “But you don’t get to the guardrail if you’re not on the cell phone and you’re paying attention to your driving.”
In November, New York became the first state to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving, imposing a $100 fine on violators.
Arnick’s bill largely follows New York’s model, including a 30-day grace period during which police would issue written warnings so drivers adjust to the new law.
The law would take effect in November 2003, and violators could be charged up to $500.
Opponents of the bill, most notably many wireless phone companies, say that distracted driving is best handled by education instead of regulation. The industry also said use of cell phones is being unfairly singled out among other driving distractions like the radio, eating, drinking and attending to children.
More than 200 measures regulating cell phone use while driving have been rejected nationwide in the last two years, said Cary B. Hinton, regional director of state government affairs for Sprint Corp.
The New York law was enacted based on “specious” public opinion data, which stated that 80 percent of New York residents supported the phone ban, Hinton said. The poll prompted an “overreaction by the governor as well as legislative leaders” in that state, he said.
Current reckless and negligent driving laws effectively deal with distracted driving, some lawmakers said.
“We have the laws on the books such as reckless driving and negligent driving,” said B. Daniel Riley, D-Harford. “The laws were written in such a manner that they cover a multitude of sins. Using a cell phone in your hand irresponsibly comes under it.”
Cell phone use is rarely listed as the cause of an accident in surveys, several opponents said.
Maryland State Police began keeping statistics on accidents caused by cell phones in October 2000, said Lt. Bud Frank.
According to their accident data from January to June 2001, cell phone use is listed as the primary cause in accidents for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all accidents, Frank said.
But accidents involving cell phones are more prevalent than many surveys and statistics indicate, Arnick said. Drivers often will not admit to talking on a cell phone, he said, and sometimes drivers talking on cell phones cause an accident in which they are not involved.
Wireless representatives also argued the enactment of legislation would prevent people from reporting emergencies, costing public safety and law enforcement crucial time to respond.
Arnick’s bill exempts the use of hand-held phones for 911 calls, emergency vehicle operators and employees of electric, gas or telephone companies.