Senate says: No holding cell phones while driving
Late, late, late Monday night the Senate gave preliminary approval to a measure that bans talking on a handheld cell phone while driving. Marylanders could still chat on the phone via a headset. They lowered the fine for violations to $40 from $100.
The legislation (SB 321) prompted a lengthy debate in the Senate, with members rejecting eleven amendments offered by Sen. E.J. Pipkin who wanted to weaken the bill. As the evening wore on his, his colleagues – notably Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden --became increasingly impatient. (The Sun's Michael Dresser has written extensively about the bill here.)
The most substantial debate came early with Sen. Rona E. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, implored her colleagues to place a complete ban on cell phone usage while driving. “The danger comes from engaging your mind in the conversation,” she said. “If we want to be safe what we need to do is ban cell phone use.”
The measure as written, she argued, merely encourages Marylanders to buy headsets for their phones. “I would proffer that we are asking our constituents to flush money down the toilet,” she said.
Sen. Michael G. Lenett acknowledged that bill might not prevent the “cognitive” distraction that arises from yammering while driving, but he said it does end a type of a “physical distraction” presented when a driver holds a phone instead of the steering wheel.
Then Sen. E.J. Pipkin began producing his amendments. He wanted to tweak the language and allow drivers to “adjust the volume” of the phone while driving. (“We don’t ban turning the radio up or down,” he said on the floor.)
Sen. Brian Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, objected. “You are going to make the bill unenforceable,” he said. He offered an example: “Let me just adjust the brightness of the screen,” he said. “It just gets silly.” The change failed 15-31.
Next Pipkin wanted to let drivers to use the speaker phone function on their phone. It failed 17-29. Then Pipkin suggested a carve out for using a GPS on a phone wile driving. That went down 15-30.
Perhaps to give him a break, Sen. David Brinkley rose to amend the bill so drivers could look up a contact before making a call. That seemed to be gaining traction as some Senators realized it might be preferable to look up a name than dial a 10 digit phone number.
But Frosh noted the change would open a loophole in the legislation. “You can’t go mining the contact info for data” while driving, Frosh told Senators. The amendment failed 17 to 28.
Pipkin, refreshed, rose again with a fourth amendment. It let drivers fiddle with the music functions on their phone while on the road. The idea failed 14-31. Next he wanted to allow drivers to call for towing services while driving. Pipkin also wanted an exemption for highway employees, and then he wanted the bill to only create a violation if a driver got into an accident.
“Can we put these on a consent calendar?” McFadden asked, hoping to group them all together and then reject them all in one swoop.
As time went on Pipkin tried to exempt all calls from parents to children, a change that would have essentially gutted the bill in the opinion of some senators. It failed and he rose to offer another amendment.
Exasperated, McFadden exclaimed “Here we go again!”
All of Pipkin’s idea failed. The bill still awaits final Senate approval and must be taken up in the House of Delegates.