Reading Texts While Driving Now Illegal

BERLIN — A new law extending the ban on texting and using a cell phone while driving in Maryland went into effect this week, closing a loophole left open when state lawmakers passed the legislation two years ago.

In 2009, state legislators passed a law banning texting while driving in Maryland and last year passed another law extending the ban to all cell phone use while driving, with the exception of a few emergency situations. However, the new state laws left open a loophole allowing motorists to read text messages while stopped at a red light, for example.

Last year, however, state lawmakers passed the Maryland Texting While Driving Law, which closed the open loopholes and now prohibits all drivers in Maryland from using an electronic device to write, send, or read a text message while operating a motor vehicle in the travel lanes of a roadway. The new law, which went into effect on Oct. 1, does not apply to texting 911 or using a global positioning device.

The new texting law is a primary enforcement law, meaning law enforcement officials do not have to stop an offending motorist for another charge to enforce it. It is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of $70 for a first offense and $110 for a second offense. While laws governing cell phone use and texting have helped make strides in traffic safety, statistics show many drivers continue to ignore them.

For example, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports 67 percent of all drivers admitted to talking on their cell phones within the last 30 days, while 21 percent said they had read or sent a text message or e-mail. The second figure rose by 40 percent for drivers under the age of 35.

The good news is, traffic fatalities in Maryland in 2010 were reduced to 496, the lowest total in three years, and the drop is at least partially attributed to strict enforcement and education about the dangers of cell phone use and texting while driving.

“We have seen dramatic declines in traffic fatalities in Maryland in recent years and we want that trend to continue,” said Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Marcus Brown. “That is why police officers across Maryland are working with state and local agencies to inform and educate our citizens about the dangers of texting and cell phone use while driving. We know these activities can be major distractions to drives and can have deadly consequences.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley praised law enforcement agencies around the state for enforcing the law and educating the public on the dangers, but said closing the loophole on texting at any time behind the wheel could make a difference.

“The efforts of law enforcement, educational outreach and better engineering to reduce fatalities on our roads have achieved positive results,” said O’Malley. “But for those who lost love ones in traffic crashes last year, 496 victim are still far too many. Our new strengthening the texting while driving ban is another stop toward continuing to reduce traffic deaths.”

While most agree about the dangers of talking or texting on a cell phone while driving, research shows a much smaller percentage actually heed the warning. According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, data from a 2011 survey indicates 95 percent of drivers view texting or emailing by other drivers as a serious threat to their own personal safety, while 35 percent of those same drivers admitted reading or sending a text message or email while behind the wheel in the last month.

“This research continues to illustrate a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude that persists among many drivers and perpetuates the threat of cell phone use while driving,” Ragina Averella, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA-Mid-Atlantic said this week. “Changing our nation’s traffic safety culture requires drivers to take responsibility for their actions and alter their own behaviors on the road.”