ANNAPOLIS – A bill to stop the use of hand-held phones while driving, which has failed four other times, may have a chance this session with a new committee.
Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore, introduced the legislation four times, only to see it killed in the former House Commerce and Government Matters Committee. The committee’s former chairman, Delegate John F. Wood, D-St. Mary’s, did not think the problem was as big as people made it out to be.
“Nobody addresses the lady putting on makeup or the guy eating a sandwich,” Wood said. “They have not proven it is a bad thing.”
This session, Arnick, along with Delegate Adrienne A. Mandel, D- Montgomery, once again introduced a bill to stop the use of hand-held phones while a car is in motion – unless it’s an emergency. It was assigned to the Environmental Matters Committee where Arnick is a member.
It’s unknown what the Environmental Matters Committee will do with the measure.
Arnick drafted the bill after receiving complaints from constituents about people on cell phones while driving. His opinion was bolstered by new safety studies.
“It is a dangerous thing not to pay attention while driving,” Arnick said. “I don’t think that when you are going 80 miles an hour you need to use your phone or are going to call in an accident.”
Mandel likes cell phones and says their benefits will only grow when they are used in a safe manner.
“When it’s in the law, people think twice about doing something and we need that kind of leverage,” said Mandel. “There are many distractions for drivers, and we can’t control all of them, but this is something we can control.”
New York is the only state to have passed legislation banning the use of hand-held phones. No information is available showing if the action has lowered car accidents.
Both Arnick and Mandel cite a recent study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis that estimates nearly 2,600 deaths may result from a driver’s use of a cell phone. The study, which analyzed previously collected data, also determined “the benefits of a ban would be worth $43 billion.”
However, even the study’s researchers say more information is needed on the issue.
“Those two big numbers call for attention,” said Joshua Cohen, senior research scientist for the study. “There is not enough research. In 2000, we said more study was needed and there is not enough (data) to make major policy.”
Without confirmation that cell phone use while driving causes accidents, the debate continues.
“There is no proof that using a hands-free (device) is any safer than using the phone,” said Kimberly Kuo, spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. “Our point is that we can’t ignore distractions, but it’s part of a larger issue than using cell phones.”
Two other studies put cell phones way down the list of accident-causing distractions.
A study in Florida found that of 256,169 crashes, a cell phone was to blame just 335 times, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported Tuesday.
A North Carolina accident study found that something outside of the car distracted drivers 29 percent of the time, while cell phones distracted drivers only 1.5 percent of the time, according to the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center in a study funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“The research on this is really mixed and a lot is being undertaken,” said Executive Director Barbara Harsha of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “There is not really clear evidence that banning cell phone use alone (while driving) will be helpful.”
“What we recommend is don’t use cell phones at all,” Harsha said. “If you have to use a cell phone get off the road . . . or get to somewhere safe.”