By JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Drivers who use hand-held cell phones are once again the target of Maryland legislators who say they want to improve highway safety.
"I think this is a really important public safety measure," said Michael G. Lenett, D-Montgomery, the primary sponsor of legislation that would ban use of hand-held cell phones while driving.
"I think everybody has at one time or another observed people driving unsafely, maneuvering through traffic while clutching a cell phone to the ear with only one hand on the wheel," he said.
The measure would encourage drivers to use head sets or other devices that free the user's hands for driving. Law enforcement officials would be exempt from the measure.
Recent studies suggest that distractions are a major cause of car crashes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration an estimated twenty-five percent to thirty percent of motor vehicle crashes, or about 1.2 million accidents, are caused by driver distraction.
And of those distractions, NHTSA found in a 2006 study that the most common distraction for drivers is cell phone use, which increases the risk of a crash by 1.3 times.
Lt. Ronald Smith of the Montgomery County police, who is in support of the ban, said the bill is a step in the right direction toward achieving safer roads.
"If you went to a hands-free-type set-up it would improve safety somewhat. It's still a distraction," he said.
While Lenett acknowledged that cell phone use is a distraction for drivers with or without the use of hands, he said the bill is an attempt to find the middle ground.
"What we're looking for is to strike a balance. And I think that's a reasonable balance to just prohibit the hand-held [phones]," Lenett said.
He added that prohibiting all cell phone use while driving would be too much of an imposition.
Should the bill pass, Maryland would join four other states, the District of Columbia, and twenty-three countries in banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Various forms of a ban on cell phone use while driving have been pushed since 1999. However, support of the bill was never strong.
But Lennett said that this type of legislation is becoming increasingly popular.
"Seventy-two million Americans now live in jurisdictions that ban hand-held cell phones while driving. That's nearly a quarter of the country's population," he said.
Opponents of the bill include Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil and Harford, who characterized the bill as Orwellian.
She compared the distraction of a cell phone to the distraction of eating potato chips.
"It is big brother. ... How far are we going to go?" she said.
Jacobs also was opposed to the measure on the grounds that it is a primary offense, giving police another "excuse" to pull-over drivers.
Sprint Nextel manager of government affairs Gary Horewitz echoed these thoughts.
"Using a cell phone is a potential distraction, but so is changing a CD, putting on mascara," he said.
Horewitz said he is in favor of educational measures to change driver habits.
"Education is a better answer," he said. The bill also met opposition from school bus drivers and tour bus companies who criticized a part of the bill which prohibits them from using cell phones at all.