House panel votes unanimously for cell phone bill
he House of Delegates appears on the verge of passing a long-proposed but often-defeated ban on the use of hands-held cell phone while driving after a committee approved the measure unanimously.
The House Environmental Matters Committee approved the Senate bill late Wednesday afternoon with support ranging from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats.
Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, who took the lead in forging the consensus to pass the bill, said she would bring the measure to the floor Thursday. She said the votes are there to pass the bill without amendments and send it to Gov. Martin O’Malley for his signature.
McIntosh said even she was surprised to achieve a unanimous vote. She said it shows a growing understanding in the legislature and society that as technology changes, people are trying to do more while driving – from chatting on the phone to taking pictures to checking Facebook pages.
“”People are multitasking as they’re going down the roads these days,” she said. “I think this bill’s a great step forward.”
The legislation would make talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving a car in motion a secondary offense, meaning a violator would have to be breaking another law for a police officer to make a traffic stop.
There is an exception for using a hand-held device while stopped at a red light. Hands-free devices are not covered by the law. The fine for a first offense would be $40, with a $100 penalty for further violations.
MacIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said there was considerable support on the panel for making a violation a primary offense, meaning an officer could stop a motorist for that alone, but she said the committee decided to agree with the Senate’s determination to make it a secondary offense in view of the 24-23 margin by which it passed that chamber.
McIntosh said she didn’t want to risk losing the bill in the rush to Monday night’s adjournment by returning it to the Senate.
Some members of the committee expressed reservations about sending the bill to the House floor without attaching an amendment exempting push-to-talk radios such as those used by many truckers. But McIntosh said she would see that a measure making that exception was sent to the Senate on a separate bill.
Among those voting for the bill in spite of reservations about McIntosh’s strategy was the House Republican leader, Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell of Calvert County. Like McIntosh, he predicted it would pass, though not without some opposition.
O’Donnell said his vote reflects an evolution in the thinking of many members on the issue of cell phone use over the years. He told the committee he has reached the conclusion that “we have to do something.”
Even a member who had voted against the bill in the motor vehicles subcommittee said he reconsidered overnight.
Del. Andrew A. Serafini, a Western Maryland Republican, said he felt bad about not satisfying truckers’ concerns about the push-to-talk exemption but believed action is needed. He said that in decideing how to vote he thought about the times “I caught myself on the rumble strip” while talking on a cell phone.
Some Democratic members of the committee expressed concern about passing a bill that exempted hands-free cell phones, pointing to studies showing a scant difference between the level of distraction using those devices and hand-held phones.
But Del. James Malone, chairman of the subcommittee that has grappled with the issue for the last two months, said the defensive driving courses he has taken as a firefighter have stressed the importance of controlling the vehicle in emergencies.
“If you have two hands on the wheel, you’ll be able to react a lot better,” the Baltimore Couinty Democrat said.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, Maryland would join six other states in explicitly banning the use of hand-held cell phones by all drivers. Those states -- California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington – would differ from Maryland by making it a primary offense. The District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have also enacted such bans.