Cell Phone Driving Ban Starts Next Friday

BERLIN – A new law prohibiting talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving takes effect across Maryland next week after the General Assembly approved the legislation last spring.

Starting next Friday, it will be illegal for a motorist in Worcester County and across Maryland to use a hand-held cell phone while driving in the latest effort to crack down on distracted driving. Last year, state lawmakers approved a similar bill banning text messaging while driving and a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving was a logical next step.

The new law prohibits all Maryland drivers from using a cell phone without a hands-free device while operating a motor vehicle on any street or highway in the state. The new law is a secondary offense, meaning a driver must first be stopped for another offense such as speeding or negligent driving before he or she is ticketed for cell phone use.

A first offense will result in a citation and fine of $40, while subsequent offenses garners fines of $100. No points will be assessed on the driving record of the first-time offender, although one point will be assessed on subsequent violations. In addition, three points could be assessed if the violation contributed to an accident.

There are some obvious exceptions to the new ban on using a hand-held cell phone while driving. For example, cell phone calls placed to 911, ambulance, fire, hospital or law enforcement agencies during emergencies are allowed. Naturally, law enforcement personnel are allowed to use their hand-held cell phones while on duty.

With the proliferation of cell phones and their increased use by motorists while driving, the timing appears right for the new law in Maryland. Several studies indicate cell phone conversations distract drivers and delay reaction times, which can cause crashes and increase their severity.

For example, the National Safety Council has estimated cell phone use while driving is responsible for 1.6 million crashes annually across the country or about 28 percent of all crashes. When its law goes into effect next week, Maryland will join seven other states across the country to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving including Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Oregon and Washington, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Already, local law enforcement agencies are preparing for the new law to go into effect. Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Public Information Officer Mike Levy said this week the department supports the legislation.

“The OCPD supports anything that will get reduce distractions for drivers and improve public safety,” he said. “If you absolutely have to use your phone while you’re in the car, it needs to be hands-free. If you must make a call or a receive a call, take a minute and pull off the road and into a parking lot or safe area.”

Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Sgt. Ed Schreier agreed reducing distractions for drivers on the county’s roadways is a priority and a ban on hand-held cell phone use will promote that.

“Distracted drivers cause all sorts of problems on our highways and cell phones are a big part of that,” he said. “I’ve personally seen people stopped in a lane of traffic while talking on their phone or texting. I’ve also seen people eating, reading the newspaper, and holding a dog on their lap while driving, so anything we can do to eliminate some of that is a good thing.”

Levy said Ocean City sees its fair share of drivers talking on their cell phones, texting, using applications and other features on their phones while driving in the resort.

“People need to remember distracted driving is one of the leading causes of accidents,” he said. “We see it all the time. People are weaving in and out of their lanes or making other glaring mistakes while driving and nine times out of 10 it turns out they’re on their cell phones.”

Levy said the OCPD is well aware of the new law and will be prepared to hand out citations next week when necessary.

“We’re absolutely going to enforce it,” he said. “The bottom line is, we support anything that will improve the safety on our roads and that includes making sure people are using their cell phones appropriately. We do have a little leeway and if people are from out of state and don’t know the law, or in the few days after it goes into effect people aren’t aware of it, we have some discretion and can educate them about it, but we’re going to be writing citations.”

Schreier agreed there might be some leeway initially on the enforcement side, but warned the sheriff’s department intends to follow the letter of the law.

“The tricky thing is, it’s a secondary offense, meaning we have to pull them over for something else before we can write a citation for illegal cell phone use, but if they’re doing things associated with distracted driving, such as moving in and out of lanes, speeding or slowing down, running through stop signs or traffic signals, they’re probably getting pulled over anyway,” he said. “Most of those things are also considered negligent or even aggressive driving already.”