Lawmaker Wants Phones Out of Drivers' Hands
By Daniel LeDuc
Imagine denying drivers in the suburbs of the hot-air capital of the world the right to roll along the highway with a cell phone clutched to one ear. No more animated conversations that last from stop sign to stoplight. No more blathering while backed up on the Beltway.
Maryland Del. John S. Arnick wants those jabbering cell phone drivers to shut up, hang up, put their hands on the wheel and keep their attention on the road. He's proposing to ban use of hand-held cell phones by drivers in Maryland.
The other day, the Democrat said, he counted more than 30 drivers jawing on their cell phones during his drive from his Baltimore district to Annapolis.
"I don't know 30 people that are that important," he said. "It is a risk and it causes a danger."
Arnick said he gets a complaint almost every day from constituents angered by people who drive erratically with a cell phone pressed to an ear, so he has introduced the first proposal anyone in Maryland can remember to ban drivers from using cell phones unless they're connected to speakers for hands-free use. His bill is up for a committee hearing today in Annapolis, and while Arnick acknowledged that passage is unlikely, he said he is ready to begin the debate with the hope of success down the road.
As the use of cellular phones has spread nationally, the number of subscribers has jumped from 19 million to 68 million in the last three years lawmakers elsewhere are beginning to consider restricting their use by drivers.
Overseas, Germany requires drivers to have hand-free models if they want phones in their cars. Here, there are similar proposals pending or contemplated in the legislatures of a half-dozen states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
But this is the Washington area. This is a place with the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation. Talk isn't cheap here; it's sold for $500 an hour. People want to rattle on in their cars.
"Talk is the fuel of the Washington economy," said Bethesda land-use lawyer Bob Harris, who, for the record, was speaking from his office, not his car. If the law passes, he said, "we better build 12 new courthouses to take care of the caseload."
Harris said he uses his cell phone with and without a speaker every day. And he said it's no more distracting than anything else like smoking that drivers engage in behind the wheel. He added, "If you drop a cell phone in your lap, it can stay there. If you drop a cigarette in your lap, you better take care of it."
But there are the worrisome stories that Arnick has heard: The state trooper who pulled over a speeder distracted while talking who kept talking even as the trooper was asking for his license. The bike-riding schoolteacher who said he has been forced off the road several times by drivers not paying attention while on the phone. The truck driver who said he has seen too many near misses involving cellular-clutching drivers.
"There is a safety issue," said Tim Ayers, vice president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. "But we say once you get behind the wheel, your first job is to drive safely."
In most places that have contemplated similar prohibitions, law enforcement officials have said existing reckless-driving laws were adequate to meet concerns and that officers didn't want the added responsibility of pulling over drivers for cellular chatting, Ayers said.
There are no hard statistics on whether cell phones contribute to traffic accidents. Police reported that cellular phones were a "related factor" in 57 of the 56,602 driver deaths in 1997, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That is an increase over previous years, but officials said it is unclear whether police were reporting incidents accurately, and the statistics did not mean that phone use was a direct cause of the accidents.
Still, there is growing evidence that talking on the phone while driving is a serious distraction.
A NHTSA psychologist, Michael Goodman, concluded in a study last year that cell-phone-using drivers are frequently distracted and run a greater risk of an accident. And two years ago, University of Toronto researchers determined that drivers on the phone stood a four times greater risk of accident.
Both studies said there appeared to be no increase in safety for drivers using hands-free phones because the conversations themselves were the collision-causing distraction.
But even for Arnick, banning all cell phones in cars would be going too far. After all, he just a got a nifty new model for his car a speakerphone with voice-activated dialing.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company