- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — In a conflict over far police should go to get drivers off cell phones, the Maryland Senate narrowly defeated a bill yesterday that would have stepped up enforcement of a handheld cell phone ban for young drivers.

The Senate failed by a single vote to approve a bill that would have allowed police officers to pull over drivers for violating the law against using cell phones. Current Maryland law bans handheld cell phone use for provisional drivers, but not older drivers, though cell phone use is not reason enough for officers to stop young drivers and can be ticketed only as a secondary offense.

The vote came a day after the Senate moved toward approval on a separate bill to ban handheld cell phones for all drivers, then put off that debate until next week. If approved, that bill would also ban text messaging while driving — a proposal already defeated twice in the House this year.

Cell phone use has proved one of the most divisive issues so far this year in Annapolis. Lawmakers from both parties have split ways over whether drivers should be allowed to chat on cell phones, and how far the law should go to ensure drivers have their minds on the road.

“I think everyone’s firm on where they are,” said Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, Charles Democrat, who sponsored the teen cell phone bill defeated yesterday.

Mr. Middleton said he proposed his bill after teens from his area died in a car crash attributed to cell phone use. But he said opponents raised “very legitimate concerns” and that cell phone use while driving has divided lawmakers in Annapolis for years and could be far from settled.

That was clear yesterday, when the Senate upended the teen cell phone ban in an unusual case of rejecting a proposal already endorsed in a committee and sent to a full vote.

First, Sen. Andrew P. Harris said the bill would create a new crime of “driving while young.” Mr. Harris, Baltimore County Republican, took issue with the fact that police officers would have to guess whether drivers using cell phones were young enough to have provisional licenses, a fear that sparked a lively debate.

Black Senate Democrats feared the measure could lead to illegal profiling, with black teens more likely than their white counterparts to be pulled over for driving while talking on phones.

“We would all be susceptible to have our loved ones profiled,” said Sen. Verna L. Jones, Baltimore Democrat who leads the Legislative Black Caucus.

The bill ultimately got a vote of 22-21 — a majority of those voting but two short of the 24 votes needed to pass a bill. It’s unclear whether the ban for all drivers stands a better shot. A version of it passed by a single vote, but the question is back before lawmakers Tuesday, when two absent senators are to return.

Mr. Middleton said he suspected a ban will come to Maryland, if not this year then soon, because of growing public support to join the District and other states and jurisdictions where driving while talking on handheld phones is not allowed.

“They work, they save lives,” Mr. Middleton said of cell phone driving bans. “When I go to D.C., I know I’m not going to have my cell phone on.”

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