- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A long-debated measure to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving could be approved by the Maryland Senate next week, although supporters say the legislation is on life support.

The bill would fine drivers $50 for talking on phones while driving without using hands-free devices. The proposal would allow cell-phone fines only as secondary offenses, meaning a police officer would not be allowed to pull over a driver simply for using the phone. Text messaging while driving also would be banned.

Maryland lawmakers have for years considered the ban, similar to regulations in place in the District and New York state.

This year marks the first time hand-held phone bans have made it to full debates in either chamber of Maryland’s legislature.

The bill almost was crumpled yesterday when a senator said he misunderstood an amendment that would have removed the prohibition on talking on hand-held cell phones in favor of a ban only on text messaging while driving.

The amendment, approved on a 23-22 vote after a tense debate, would have meant almost certain death for the bill because the House of Delegates has rejected text-message bans two other times this year.

After the amendment was approved, Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat, said he changed his mind and asked for a legislative “do-over” often used on close votes. The Senate decided to take up the question again next week, also on a 23-22 vote.

“We are on life support. But we are still alive,” said the sponsor of the cell-phone ban, Sen. Michael G. Lennett, Montgomery Democrat. Mr. Lennett predicted the cell-phone ban would win approval next week, when two absent senators could return and lend their support for a more comfortable margin.

Mr. Garagiola, whose amendment vote almost sank the ban, told reporters after the vote that he thought the amendment would add a text-message ban to a ban on talking on hand-held phones. Instead, the amendment took out the hand-held phone ban and left only a text-message ban.

“I actually misunderstood the amendment,” said Mr. Garagiola, who added that it’s time for the state to ban use of hand-held phones while driving. “It serves notice to the public to drive safely.”

Even if approved, the ban is weaker than proponents originally wished. The proposed ban will expire in two years unless lawmakers renew it. It would exempt law-enforcement officers, volunteer rescue workers and bus or truck drivers using radios to communicate.

Violation fines were cut to $50 from $100, and ticketed drivers could have the fines waived if they buy hands-free accessories for their phones. The bill also makes clear that points would not be added to a driver’s record on the first offense.

Young drivers in Maryland already are banned from talking on hand-held cell phones except in emergencies. Senators are planning to vote on a separate measure that would allow police officers to pull over young drivers using hand-held cell phones.

A longtime supporter of cell-phone driving bans, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., Baltimore County Democrat, said the ban has been loaded with exemptions to make it more palatable to skeptics.

“This is a safety measure. This is a measure whose time has come,” Mr. Stone said.

The proposed ban faces heavy opposition in both parties. Sen. Rona E. Kramer, Montgomery Democrat, argued that distracted driving is caused by mental engagement in a conversation, not holding a phone to an ear.

“We all know that we drive with our arms sitting on the window. Don’t we? Don’t we do that? Are we going to ban that?” Miss Kramer asked.

Lobbying on the issue could intensify between now and Tuesday, when senators resume debate on the ban. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, told senators that they could expect another spirited debate.

“Everybody understands this issue. Everybody’s violated what’s been covered here. The question is, are we going to make ourselves criminals or not?” said Mr. Miller, who voted for the ban.

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