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February 16, 2011

Don't read texts while driving, lawmakers say

Not long ago, Sgt. Holly Barrett of the Maryland State Police pulled over a young woman who'd blown through a red light while looking at her cell phone. The driver, Barrett told lawmakers Tuesday, was so distracted that she had stopped, started to read the messages, and then — not realizing the light was still red — stepped on the gas.

Two years ago, state legislators outlawed writing or sending messages while driving. Last year, they banned talking on handheld cell phones as a secondary offense, making it illegal, but requiring police to have another reason, such as speeding, to initiate a traffic stop.

Now lawmakers are pushing again to expand prohibitions on cell phone use behind the wheel. Proposals this year include a ban on reading texts or electronic messages such as e-mails while driving, and enabling officers to pull over drivers talking on their handheld devices even if they are not breaking any other laws.

Legislative leaders say the reading ban, reviewed Tuesday by House and Senate committees, is likely to become law this year, but they believe making cell phone use a primary offense might have to wait.

No one testified against the reading ban at Tuesday's hearing. Supporters include the Maryland State Police, AAA, insurance brokers and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Tom Hicks, an official with the supportive State Highway Administration, called the legislation "almost a housekeeping matter."

Some legislators have been reluctant to criminalize driver behavior. The handheld cell ban passed the Senate last year by just one vote.

Sen. Robert Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted against the bill last year said drivers do many things — putting on makeup, eating, reading the newspaper — that are just as unsafe as using a cell phone.

"Do we really need to go down the list and address each one individually?" he asked. "There are laws against reckless driving."

Part of the effort this year is to clear up confusion about the cell phone laws.

Barrett said some of her fellow police colleagues don't realize Maryland's texting law contains the nuance that allows reading.

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is one of the sponsors of the proposed reading ban, said Maryland has "this strange law where police have to try to figure out if somebody's writing a text or reading a text."

But much about Maryland's approach to cell phones and driving is complicated.

Officers can pull drivers over for writing or sending (but not reading) text messages even if they are breaking no other laws. They can't do that if they spot drivers chatting away.

The texting ban applies only to drivers who are in the travel portion of the roadway, even if stopped dead in traffic. To legally text, a driver needs to pull onto the shoulder. However, it's perfectly legal for a driver to talk on a cell phone while stopped because the law prohibits it only "while in motion."

Penalties also differ. Texting violators are subject to a maximum fine of $500 and one point on their driving record. Talkers face a maximum fine of $40 and no points unless the driver contributes to an accident.

Del. James E. Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat, is pushing legislation to make the talking restrictions mirror the texting restrictions by prohibiting all use of handheld devices while in lanes of traffic.

His bill, supported by law enforcement officials, also would make talking a primary offense. Malone compared the cell phone issue to seat belt laws put on the books years ago. At first, failure to wear a seat belt was a secondary offense. When it became a primary offense, he said, compliance "shot up dramatically." It's now about 96 percent, he said.

Malone believes that as drivers realize that they can't be pulled over for talking unless they're doing something else wrong, "they're taking the chance of using the phone."

The Senate and House of Delegates both passed bans on reading texts while behind the wheel last year, but slightly different wording in the two bills doomed it in the final hours of the legislative session.

Electronic messages included in the proposed ban include emails, tweets and videos. Of the 30 states that have outlawed texting while driving, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation, just five ban writing but not reading.

There are exceptions in the existing and proposed texting laws for using a global positioning device or contacting emergency services.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:54 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: 2011 legislative session


I thought this went into effect when phones went "hands-free" last fall? Guess not, but it should be easy to pass. Not much to defend with everything else banned.

lawmakers will do anything to keep them from talking about the budget. the most important thing they should be working on !

whats next no talking on cells while walking enough already they are slowly taking our freedoms away

Why is it a freedom to run over others since you cannot take your eyes off your phone? Today was the last day that I stopped someone from walking into traffic because they were focused on their 'Crackberry' - next bonehead will be a casualty.

Freedom comes in where the use of cell phones is banned in non-dangerous situations.

The issue with this is that if there is a traffic stoppage and your car is stopped in the drive lanes unable to pull to the side of the road, you will still not be able to use your cell phone without violating the statute if the blog post is accurate. This would be so despite the fact you can't move your car.

You have to look at the legislation itself, for it isn't illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving. That's an oversimplification of the legislation. You can use the cell phone to initiate and terminate calls. You can use the speakerphone on your cell phone to talk while driving. Read the statute. I did.

What's next? A ban on listening to soft rock in cars because it might be more likely to put drivers to sleep? Or hard rock because it might make drivers more likely to be aggressive? Maybe we should regulate how many times someone is allowed to blink a minute. Maryland's legislature should stop trying to regulate the minutia of individual behavior and start regulating things like banks and big business that actually need regulating.

Four bills with the same intentions were up for hearings on Feb. 15. What happened with the other three in the House?

The only effect these laws have is that they warn people like me who refuse to stop using our cell phones that if we cause an accident we should lie and say we were distracted by the GPS instead. Thanks for the heads up!!!

When's the last time someone was STOPPED and hit someone? Before they say people can't look at their phones, while stopped, they need to outlaw things stupid people do every day while driving at full speed: putting on makeup, shaving, eating bowls of cereal (all of which I've seen in person), and yes, even the person who had their Kindle mounted to the windshield like a GPS should be legislated before any action is taken against drivers who are stopped. Talk about misplaced priorities!!

first one was pulled.

so its ok that a police officer is on their computer while driving? or on their cell phone? or how about the squad car radio? maybe all at once. lastly i guess this is just me, but if an officer of the law get a dui does he?she have to have a blow and go in the squad car? i will take my answers of the air

What I don't get is this: it's not a ban on reading while driving... it's a ban on reading while driving if what you're reading happens to be on a phone or PDA.
Would lawmakers consider forbidding folks from looking at a map while driving, or directions printed out from Google Maps? But if I understand it correctly, reading that same information on a PDA makes it illegal?
And what of reading billboards - things the ad industry specifically designs to take people's attention off the roads?
Ban the action - reading itself - or don't ban the medium. Otherwise, the whole effort seems logically flawed and fundamentally silly.

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About the bloggers
Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
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