- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

A judge's acquittal of a motorist accused of killing two persons while distracted by a cellular phone may be all the impetus the Maryland General Assembly needs to crack down on people who drive and use phones at the same time.

"I think certainly that should help us pass the bill," said Delegate John S. Arnick, Baltimore Democrat, who has unsuccessfully pushed a ban on driving and phoning.

"I think this is such a problem," he said. "It is tremendously dangerous."

On Wednesday, Prince George's County Circuit Judge Ronald D. Schiff acquitted Jason Jones, a 20-year-old Naval Academy midshipman, on two counts of vehicular manslaughter because "driving under the influence of a cell phone is not a crime."

But in handing down the verdict, the judge said "hopefully the legislature will look into this."

The apologetic defendant admitted he was dialing his cell phone on the Capital Beltway moments before crashing his Pontiac Grand Prix into a parked Mazda Protege, killing John and Carole Hall of Long Island, N.Y., during Thanksgiving weekend last year.

Judge Schiff convicted the midshipman on one count of negligent driving and ordered him to pay a $500 fine. There was debate as to whether he had been speeding, as well as using the phone.

Midshipman Jones' attorney, Stephen Markey, said during his closing arguments that he would support legislation banning cell-phone use behind the wheel.

Jack Johnson, state's attorney for Prince George's County, said drivers on the phone "pose a substantial risk of harm" and the "General Assembly needs to articulate that."

Thirty-seven states have introduced legislation, but none has passed a ban. Eight smaller jurisdictions have passed such measures, including Suffolk County, N.Y., where the Hall family lived.

That law imposes a $150 fine against motorists caught using hand-held cell phones on the road.

Mr. Arnick's proposal would make it a misdemeanor for a driver to operate a telephone in a moving vehicle. The crime would carry a $500 fine.

The measure failed to make it out of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee this year.

While studies on the subject are difficult to gauge, Mr. Arnick has cited a six-month study in Japan that attributed nine deaths and 1,627 accidents to cellular-phone use.

He said the number of fatal auto accidents related to use of a hand-held phone rose from seven in 1991 to 57 in 1997.

During the Jones trial, researchers likened cell-phone use by motorists to drinking and driving and insisted the risks are fourfold for drivers preoccupied with their phones.

Maryland representatives of cellular-phone companies have fought the delegate's bill, insisting phones are needed in vehicles to report emergencies.

Some dispute a correlation between cell-phone use and auto accidents.

"There is no credible evidence that cellular-phone use is any more distracting than any other activity that is done in the car," Kathleen A. Kittrick, a lobbyist for AT&T;, told the assembly earlier this year.

Studies show about 85 percent of cell-phone users make calls at least occasionally while driving, according to a legislative analysis.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association estimates there are more than 106 million wireless users in the United States. Someone subscribes every 1.5 seconds.

Mr. Arnick said he will keep pushing, adding that it took 17 years for the legislative body to pass a law forcing truckers to cover their loads.

In Virginia, Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat, has filed a bill to prohibit drivers from using a hand-held phone while making a turn or merging onto or exiting a freeway. Those are times when drivers need to be paying the most attention to what they're doing and need to have the ability to control their cars, she said.

"There just have been too many close calls with people making turns, concentrating on the cell phone, with the phone in one hand and the wheel in the other," she said.

Miss Darner said she knows her bill, which will be taken up when the legislature meets in January, wouldn't stop the type of accident that occurred on the Beltway. But she also said she realizes a bill to ban cell phones while driving probably doesn't have a chance of passing in Virginia.

Dee Yankoskie, manager of wireless-education programs for the cellular association, said the larger issue is inattentive driving.

"We don't feel wireless phones should be singled out," she said, noting that cell-phone users make about 118,000 calls a day to report drunken-driving accidents and other emergencies.

"Out of all potential distractions, phones are the only one that save people's lives."

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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