In a move that could affect millions of Maryland drivers, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill Thursday that bans the use of hand-held cell phones while driving — enacting a measure that took more than a decade to pass the General Assembly.
At what is presumably the last signing ceremony of his term — barring an unexpected special session in an election year — the governor's action adds Maryland to a short list of states with similar laws. Maryland's law will take effect Oct. 1.
The new law is drawing praise from advocates for safe driving, including David Nevins, co-chairman of the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation.
"We're convinced that on Oct. 1, it becomes a much safer day in Maryland. Talking on a cell phone in some cases approximates a .08 alcohol content, making it equivalent to drunk driving as far as people's condition goes," he said, referring to the blood-alcohol reading at which a person is presumed to have been driving under the influence.
The cell phone bill was one of hundreds O'Malley planned to sign at a State House event, but it may be the one with the most direct effect on Marylanders' everyday lives.
The compromise measure, which exempts devices that let drivers talk with their hands free, squeaked through the Senate along highly partisan lines but passed the House of Delegates with a solid bipartisan majority.
Walking away from the State House with the pen O'Malley used to sign the bill were Russell and Kim Hurd, a Harford County couple whose daughter, Heather, was killed in January 2008 in a crash attributed to a truck driver who was sending a text message. The Hurds had testified for both the texting ban passed last year and this year's cell phone legislation.
"It's a wonderful step for Maryland — a giant step toward making our highways safer," said Russell Hurd. "I know our daughter's smiling."
The bill, significantly milder than the legislation that was introduced, provides a $40 fine for a first offense and $100 for subsequent violations. But it imposes no points on a motorist's driving record for a first offense unless it contributes to an accident. Under the legislation, a violation is a secondary offense — meaning a police officer can only pull over a violator who is observed committing another offense, such as speeding.
The measure approved by the General Assembly is named after the late Del. John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat who more than a decade ago launched what was then a quixotic effort to curb the burgeoning use of cell phones while driving. The bill was sponsored by Arnick's longtime friend and district colleague, Sen. Norman Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat who told colleagues he had been in a crash in which the other driver had been distracted by a cell phone conversation.
Arnick, said Stone, was "ahead of his time."
Nevins said his group would have preferred a law making a violation a primary offense, but he expressed confidence that Maryland's new measure would have a significant effect on drivers' behavior.
"Ultimately I think this is about a culture change," he said. "[It] needs to become apparent that we are doing far too many things in our cars at 50-60-70 miles an hour."
Nevins noted that the state law requiring seat belt use started as a secondary offense and was later strengthened so that police needed no other reason to make a traffic stop. Now, he said, Maryland's seat belt compliance exceeds 90 percent.
In addition to the cell phone bill, O'Malley's signing ceremony today included a related measure that exempts push-to-talk radio technologies used by truckers from the ban.
Other transportation-related measures would: require drivers to maintain a 3-foot buffer zone while passing a bicyclist, clarify the rights of bicyclists to use travel lanes instead of just the shoulders of roads and extend tax credits to electric-powered vehicles.
The 3-foot bill, which would make it a moving violation to drive too close to a bicyclist, escaped a legislative logjam only after the death April 6 of 43-year-old bicyclist Larry Bensky in a collision with a passing car in northern Baltimore County called attention to the issue.
His widow, Tami Bensky, who lobbied for the legislation in the final hours of the legislative session, was on hand for the signing along with the couple's young daughter, Katelyn.
"It's not the penalty that's important," Tami Bensky said. "It's not having to invoke the penalty in the first place."
Jim Kiley, General Motors' East Coast government relations director, said Maryland has become the first state in the East and the second in the country, to offer a tax credit to purchasers of electric vehicles.
Kiley, whose company is betting heavily on plug-in auto technology, said the $2,000 would make electric cars more affordable for Marylanders.
"We see the plug-in as . . . the next step to hopefully going oil-free, starting with hydrogen fuel cells and electrics," he said.
Other bills the governor signed would require mediation in some cases before a lender could foreclose on a someone's home, expand state efforts toward sustainable growth and expand a Heritage Tax Credit used toward the rehabilitation of older neighborhoods.
"It's a win for the green sector. It's a win for the construction sector as well," O'Malley said.