- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

Maryland Delegate John Arnick doesn't think you should talk on a handheld wireless phone while driving a car. So the Baltimore County Democrat wants to make it against the law in his state.

He isn't going after drivers who change compact discs or radio stations. It will still be OK to reach down to pick up an item that fell to the floor. A father who tries to stop the wailing by putting a pacifier in his baby's mouth in the back seat will still be safe from the lengthening arm of the law.

But checking your messages on your way into work could soon land you a fine of up to $500. It could also change your answer next time a potential employer asks if you have ever been convicted of a crime.

"You can't cure everything, but this is one that is getting out of hand," Mr. Arnick said to justify the proposal that got a public hearing Wednesday. "There's no question that using the phone while driving is dangerous."

To bolster his argument, the lawmaker points to insurance industry data that show the number of fatal auto accidents related to use of a handheld phone rose from seven in 1991 to 57 in 1997. And studies show that about 85 percent of wireless-phone users make calls at least occasionally while driving, according to a legislative analysis.

A study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) that put drivers on simulators to test response time while using wireless phones was less conclusive.

The NHTSA found that drivers using the phone on a straight stretch of roadway tended to drive slower and had slower reaction times than their counterparts who were not on the phone. There was no difference in speed and reaction time when drivers faced more challenging road conditions, like a curvy or heavily trafficked road.

Those findings suggest that this is really all about paying attention. Drivers who put their highest priority on driving a car, because the road required it, did just fine. Drivers who were more concerned with making phone calls, because they were lulled by the relative safety of the roadway, were driven to distraction.

Maryland State Police don't keep statistics on whether wireless phones contribute to accidents, but Lt. Joseph Barker, a spokesman, said a person using a wireless phone in an accident can already be charged with a crime.

"From experience working the road, if somebody caused an accident because they were changing the radio station or reaching down to get lipstick off the floor, we'd charge the person with negligence," Lt. Barker said. "We'd do the same thing if they said they were talking on the phone when they caused an accident."

Like a good public servant, Lt. Barker said the police will enforce the laws created by the state legislature. But it is legitimate to question whether pulling over wireless phone scofflaws is the best use of an officer's time.

Telecommunications companies were out in force last week to argue there is little reason to create a new law. Of course, these companies have much at stake. The 85 million wireless subscribers who have wireless phones would use substantially less service time if they could not use those phones while sitting in traffic.

To stave off legislation, telecom companies have undertaken public education campaigns to encourage wireless phone users to be careful and responsible. The companies don't question that hands-free units now being marketed offer advantages over handheld phones.

If Mr. Arnick's bill becomes law, hands-free units will have the additional advantage of being the only legal way to talk on the phone while driving. He does not intend to go after individuals who look away from the road to dial those phones.

Telecom companies have good reason to fear new laws. There are plenty of lawmakers who share Mr. Arnick's view.

Nine countries prohibit the use of phones while driving, as do several U.S. counties. Similar bills are pending in 20 state legislatures across the country.

Mr. Arnick thinks too many commuters use the phone for frivolous reasons. Calling someone to say you will be arriving in 15 minutes, for example, is unnecessary, he says. He is entitled to his opinion, just as the committee dealing with the bill is entitled to kill it for the second year in a row.

The House of Delegates Committee on Commerce and Government Matters is essentially the same as it was last year, leaving a good chance that the bill will be defeated again.

Committee member Robert Kittleman, a Republican representing parts of Montgomery and Howard counties, expects to vote against the bill.

"You can always dream up something that will probably save somebody's life if you can make the citizenry conform, but you've got to draw the line someplace," said Mr. Kittleman, the House minority leader.

He sees another downside as well. "Part of the reason we have a tremendous economy is the technology revolution that's going on part of the reason I think that's happening is because people can conduct business on the telephone instead of just sitting in traffic," he said.

If there is a benefit to this debate, it's that it makes commuters think about the potential hazard of not paying attention to the road. Phones can be programmed to reduce the amount of attention it takes to dial a number. Good judgment is essential and a conversation can never be as important as driving a car.

But there will always be drivers who regularly forget the life-threatening consequences of inattention. And anyone's attention can wander, phone or no phone.

That's the real problem, and Mr. Arnick's law won't solve it.

Bernard Dagenais, business editor of The Washington Times, can be reached at 202/636-3173 or e-mail dagena@twtmail.com.

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