- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

An executive order banning the use of hand-held cell phones by Maryland employees driving state-owned vehicles could set a precedent to ban all drivers from using the devices while driving, lawmakers opposed to the measure say.

“It’s sort of scary that the governor would use an executive order to accomplish what we as legislators have refused to do for almost a decade,” said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, Frederick Republican. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this creates momentum to ban everyone from using cell phones in the future.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, ordered the state Department of Budget and Management on Thursday to develop a cell phone policy that would ban executive branch workers who drive state-owned vehicles from using hand-held cell phones while driving.

State police officers and other operators of emergency vehicles would be exempt from the ban. The state currently employs around 79,000 people, the vast majority of whom work for the executive branch.

The order is thought to be the first time that a governor has issued such a directive to a state’s workforce.

The order comes after the Maryland General Assembly rejected calls this year to curb cell phone use while driving. The Assembly passed a bill to ban all drivers from issuing text messages while driving. The bill takes effect Oct. 1.

“This legislative session, we passed tough new laws to improve safety on our roadways by cracking down on drunken driving, speeding and texting,” Mr. O’Malley said. “I want to carry that protection to our dedicated state employees by preventing a major cause of workplace injury: traffic crashes.”

According to the order, traffic accidents are responsible for more than 550 deaths and 50,000 injuries per year, and more than 90 percent of fatal traffic accidents are the result of driver error.

The Maryland State Highway Administration estimated that traffic accidents involving state employees in personal or state-owned vehicles cost the state up to $23.3 million each year.

David Nevins, co-chairman of the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation, said that of the various categories of highway accidents, only “distracted driver” related accidents, or those that are caused by texting or cell phone usage, are on the rise.

A 2005 study by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society showed that cell phone distraction has caused 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries nationwide each year. It also said that drivers who chat on their cell phones are less adept than drivers with blood-alcohol levels exceeding 0.08.

“The evidence is quite clear that there is a correlation. It used to be that when you see a driver behaving erratically, he was drunk. Now you see he’s talking or texting on his cell phone,” Mr. Nevins said.

Six states and the District have laws that ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

Some opponents of bans on cell phone use while driving say that the executive order will be a forerunner for legislation to extend the ban to all residents.

“It’s a way of easing into the next legislative session, and making it more palatable to push it through next year,” said Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., Cecil Republican.

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