Maryland Senate passes ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Maryland Senate approved legislation Wednesday that would bar drivers from using hand-held cellphones, a measure that most experts say would do little to make the roads safer.

The bill passed by a single vote -- 24 to 23 -- after hours of debate in which supporters said it would send a message about the dangers posed by drivers who hold cellphones to their ears.

That message may be the most potent effect of the bill, because it includes a provision that would discourage police from enforcing the ban. The legislation awaits attention in the House of Delegates.

The national campaign against distracted driving, with outspoken support from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has resulted in bans in 20 states and the District on sending and receiving text messages while behind the wheel. The District and six states also require cellphone callers to use hands-free devices.

The push to require those devices is seen by some as a step toward an outright ban on cellphone use while driving, a prohibition endorsed by the National Safety Council, which blames 1.4 million crashes annually on drivers talking on their phones.

Research conducted or endorsed by federal safety agencies has found that a telephone conversation behind the wheel is no less distracting if a hands-free system is used. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found no decline in collision rates once states went hands-free.

"Our studies found that it was about the same, whether somebody was on a hand-held or hands-free," said Anne McCartt, the institute's senior vice president for research.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has determined that a hands-free device that requires pushing buttons to dial and answer is no safer than a hand-held phone.

And several studies have determined that a driver deep into a telephone conversation pays less attention to the road.

"There's no indication that hands-free is risk-free," said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "You're still on the phone, you're still focused on the conversation, and you're still a distracted driver."

Two-thirds of drivers interviewed by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety said they thought hands-free cellphone use was less risky. But "scientific research shows that's simply not the case," said Fairley W. Mahlum of the foundation.

The bill approved Wednesday by the Maryland Senate would ban hand-held use of cellphones except to begin or end a conversation. First-time offenders could be fined $40. Emergency calls would be exempt.

"You've heard the horror stories," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), a sponsor of the bill. "It's a matter of safety."

Opponents said the bill is too intrusive and ignores the reality that phones are used for far more than talking.

"Most of us who have teenage kids understand what a big impact this law will have," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's). "We need to educate our citizens, not turn them into lawbreakers."

He predicted that the bill would provide "a blank check for law enforcement to pull law-abiding citizens over."

But a key provision of the measure is likely to prevent that. The "secondary enforcement" requirement prohibits a police officer from stopping a driver solely for using a hand-held cellphone; the officer must have another reason for stopping a vehicle before a cellphone citation can be issued.

Critics said that greatly diminishes opportunities to enforce the law.

"Secondary laws don't have much impact, if any," Adkins said. "They aren't going to be enforced. They have no teeth."

McCartt, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, agreed. "Any highway safety law that's secondary doesn't get enforced," she said. "Drivers just don't take it seriously."

Sen. Rona E. Kramer (D-Montgomery) said she voted against the bill because it does not go far enough. She said the legislature would be forcing people to buy hands-free devices that wouldn't take the risk out of talking while driving.

"It will be us making them flush that money down the toilet," Kramer said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company