Cellphone Bill Dies In Md. House

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

The campaign to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving in Maryland has ended unsuccessfully, at least for this year.

A closely divided legislative panel yesterday killed a bill that would have made it illegal to use a cellphone while driving without a hands-free accessory. The House Environmental Matters Committee voted 12 to 9 to reject the proposal, which narrowly passed the Senate last week.

The committee's action effectively kills the effort, led by Sen. Michael G. Lenett (D-Montgomery), to restrict cellphone use by motorists. The District and several states prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

The cellphone legislation advanced further this year in the Maryland General Assembly than ever before. Legislative leaders said they will study the issue after the session ends and try to pass a cellphone ban next year.

"Personally, I think it's time to go hands-free," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), who chairs the House committee and supported the measure. "This is going to be back again next year."

Proponents said talking on cellphones and sending text messages are among the most dangerous distractions for drivers. But opponents questioned that assertion and said there is not enough solid evidence linking cellphone use to traffic accidents.

Under the legislation, using a cellphone without a hands-free accessory would have become a secondary offense, meaning that a violator could be cited if pulled over for another traffic offense. Maryland already forbids drivers younger than 18 to use a hand-held cellphone while driving.

In the Senate last week, the proposal sparked tense debate before senators voted 26 to 21 to pass the legislation. To be considered by the full House, the bill needed to receive majority support in the Environmental Matters Committee. But even supporters acknowledged that the bill's prospects in that committee were mixed at best.

Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), a committee member, said he voted against the bill because he saw no compelling evidence that talking on cellphones is dangerous.

"We're lacking data, and that's certainly a factor," Hucker said.

Other delegates said the proposal would infringe upon the civil liberties of motorists.

"As a single woman who drives around alone, I rely on my cellphone as a safety issue," said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George's), who voted against the bill. "I've heard all the arguments, and no one has convinced me that cellphones are as dangerous as people say."

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