- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

Bill proposes to fine violators

The Maryland General Assembly vote hasn't been handed down yet, but a strong contingent of businesses is hoping that a bill restricting the use of cell phones in cars will fail.

House Bill 89, sponsored by Delegates John S. Arnick, Adrienne A. Mandel, C. Richard D'Amato and Cornell N. Dypski, would restrict drivers to using handheld cell phones in moving cars only in cases of emergency.

Sixteen countries and 30 U.S. cities and counties nationwide have enacted laws restricting the use of cell phones, Mr. Arnick, a Democrat, says. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago are currently considering cell-phone-usage laws.

Maryland would be the first state to have a statewide restriction on the use of handheld phones if the bill passes. The penalty for using a cell phone while driving would result in a fine of up to $500.

States have passed smaller measures regulating cell-phone use, Mrs. Mandel, a Democrat, says.

Massachusetts passed a law saying drivers must have one hand on the wheel at all times when driving. California rental car agencies must place directions on how to use a cell phone safely while driving. And Florida law says that cell-phone use while driving is fine, as long as any noise outside the car can be heard in one ear.

Mrs. Mandel is counting on the new support of Verizon Wireless to get the bill passed.

"We will support legislation as long as the bill is a statewide measure, allows customers to call 911 on their cell phones, and makes sure that any penalties for using the phone are no stronger than being penalized for any other distractions," says Marnie Metzman, a local Verizon spokeswoman.

The main opposition stems from the loose definition of an emergency or a distraction, critics say.

"I have had a car phone for 21 years," Larry Haines, a Republican delegate, says. "I'm totally opposed to prohibition. There are many other things distracting to drivers. People eat in their cars, women and men comb their hair in cars. Babies are distracting to their parents, but you won't see car seats banned. It's not going to happen to pass a law saying 'two hands on the wheel,' " he adds.

Highway-safety advocates say that the best way to talk on a cell phone is to pull off to the side of the road first. But Mr. Haines says that is not always possible.

"I'm not going to pull off to the side of the road on a highway to use a phone. Where do you pull off at? Have you been on 66 or 495? It's more dangerous to try to pull off the road than it is to talk on it," he says.

"Cell phones are more useful to save lives than to endanger them. We need to be a society that accepts today's new technologies," he says.

Maryland Realtors say that cell phones in cars are essential to business, and for safety.

"Fifty-seven percent of real estate agents nowadays are women, and they are going out in their cars to meet people they have never met before, in neighborhoods they have never been in before," Bill Castelli, president of the Maryland Realtors Association says.

As far as calling 911, Mr. Haines says that police will be unable to determine when a cell phone user is in an emergency situation. But Mrs. Mandel says technology exists to distinguish emergency calls from calls for movie tickets.

"If a person says they were making an emergency call, a record of that call will exist, and if needed, that call can be subpoenaed," she says. Under the new bill, use of a cell phone in a non-emergency situation would result in a misdemeanor.

"I'm concerned that if the bill passes what the next step will be. Talking to my friends next to me in my car, will that be considered a distraction? Will petting my dachshund when he rides with me be considered dangerous," says Rocky Worcester, president of Maryland Businesses for Responsive Government.

"The new technology for cell phones will not override the existing problem with thoughtless people with no common sense that's just bad manners. But I don't know if you can legislate common sense or good manners. I think it's incapable of being legislated," he adds.

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