After four years of incremental changes to state law banning the use of cell phones by drivers, one group of lawmakers is determined to get through a set of bills that will place Maryland in line with states that have stricter laws.
Just before the end of the General Assembly session last year, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee killed a House bill that would have made it a primary offense to talk on a cell phone while driving without a hands-free device.
Now, Del. James E. Malone Jr. (D-Dist. 12A) of Arbutus is working across chambers with former Howard County Police chief Sen. James N. Robey (D-Dist. 13) of Elkridge to garner support for the change.
“I’m hoping with his help we can get this thing passed,” Malone said.
Nine states and Washington, D.C., enforce hand-held cell phone bans as a primary offense. On Oct. 1, Maryland became the only state to make flouting a cell phone ban a secondary offense, meaning drivers must violate another rule of the road before police can pull them over.
“I did not like the law then, but we took half a loaf rather than no loaf at all,” Malone said.
This session, he’s intent on closing loopholes in the hand-held cell phone ban and the state’s texting ban, which is enforced as a primary offense for drivers over 18 but as a secondary offense for drivers under 18.
John T. Kuo, the state’s motor vehicle administrator, supports the change, citing data from the Governors Highway Safety Association that shows a 20 percent increase in compliance with phone bans when there is primary enforcement.
In fiscal 2011, the Administrative Office of the Courts reported 6,238 citations for drivers arrested for talking on their phones at a time when they also committed another traffic violation.
The bill under consideration this session, which is co-sponsored by Del. A. Wade Kach (R-Dist. 5B) of Cockeysville, would additionally ban drivers under 18 from using any wireless device, including Bluetooth technologies.
Robbie Leonard, an asssistant public defender in the legislative division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender said his office opposes the bill. Making cell phone communication a primary offense and having different rules for drivers younger than 18 would lead to a “highly imprecise guessing game by police officers” when deciding whether to stop someone, he said.
“Making it a primary action means you’re stopping a person who is otherwise safely operating his motor vehicle,” Leonard added.
Malone said his intent was to make sure anyone with a provisional driver’s license in the state won’t be “doing anything but having their hands at 9 and 3.”
Maryland State Police endorse the bill, said spokeswoman Elena Russo. “It’s just like the seat belt law,” she said, noting how wearing seat belts has become commonplace since primary enforcement.
A 2009 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claimed no significant reduction in accidents occurred in states with bans. Researchers at the University of North Texas Science Center, however, found that cell phone use while driving killed 16,000 people from 2001 to 2007, according to an analysis by Karen D. Morgan, a state policy analyst.
The bill also increases the penalties for the offenses. Those who violate the law would be subject to a maximum penalty of $500 and one point against their driver’s licenses.
If the cell phone use contributes to an accident, the Motor Vehicle Administration would assess three points. If drivers older than 18 buy hands-free devices before their court dates, judges can waive the penalty for a first offense, according to the bill.
Ragina C. Averella, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs and a former Baltimore City police officer, said distracted driving resulting from cell phone use is a growing safety concern and a primary enforcement mechanism was a welcome change.
Averella told lawmakers about a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study which concluded that 13.5 million drivers are using handheld cell phones at any given daylight moment in the U.S.
“We know that despite whatever laws are being passed it is a behavior that’s still occurring behind the wheel,” she said.
“We certainly believe that this [bill] would give law enforcement the ability that they need to actually enforce the law.”