Md. likely to stiffen ban on texting while driving
Maryland's Senate is expected to pass a bill Monday to tighten significantly its ban on texting while driving, making it illegal to glance at a hand-held device to read a message while behind the wheel and increasing the potential fine for the offense to $500.
Current Maryland law says it's illegal to send a message while driving, but there is no prohibition against reading one. In debate that established the law two years ago, opponents had successfully argued that there was no rule against reading a piece of paper containing directions, a newspaper or even a novel while driving, so a ban on reading a potentially urgent text message was particularly onerous.
State Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the bill pending for a final vote on Monday, said the measure would remove all ambiguity in the law.
"Texting and driving don't go together. Period," he said, adding that the measure would also give police officers clearer and necessary latitude to pull over drivers they see using hand-held devices. In 2010, the existing law resulted in 280 citations, he said.
But the bill has faced boisterous opposition, especially in the Senate, where opponents railed against it for over two and half hours in debate this week.
Several Republican lawmakers said the bill would amount to the government "reaching inside the car" and legislating such a common, everyday activity that it would have the effect of undermining the meaning of other, more important state laws.
To make their point, Republicans proposed amendments banning the reading of newspapers, and said the next step would be Maryland banning "eating a Big Mac, fries and a coke" while driving.
"What's the difference? That's a distraction, too," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard).
Sen. E. J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) said there was no way police officers could distinguish whether a driver was using an iPhone to play music through a car stereo or using Google Maps to look up directions, two activities that would both remain legal under the bill.
Pipkin also warned that in addition to the burned-out "tail light and hanging license plate," the law would give police in the state, which have battled perceptions of racial profiling in some urban areas, near constant probable cause to make a traffic stop.
On the House floor, Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) took another unsuccessful tack. He offered several hypothetical text messages that drivers could miss if the bill becomes law.
Among them: "Hey honey, I think the baby's coming. Turn around and come home."
Another: "I think somebody's trying to break into the house, daddy."
The House of Delegates passed the measure on Thursday by a vote of 116 to 22.
Last year, both the House and Senate passed bills expanding the state's ban on texting while driving to include reading messages. Differences in the bills were not worked out before adjournment, however.
More details of the legislation:
"A driver is prohibited from using a text messaging device to write or send a text message while operating a motor vehicle in motion or in the travel portion of the roadway. A violator is guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a maximum fine of $500. The prohibition does not apply to the use of a global positioning system or the use of a text messaging device to contact a 9-1-1 system. A violator is subject to an assessment of one point against the driving record. The prepayment penalty assessed by the District Court is $70, or $110 and three points if the violation contributes to an accident."
The National Safety Council, an organization that focuses on workplace and highway safety, estimates that talking or texting on a cellphone is responsible for 1.6 million crashes in the United States a year, about 28 percent of all crashes.
More than 380 people have died from distracted driving crashes in Maryland in the last five years, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 30 states and the District of Columbia specifically prohibit driving while texting. Washington was the first state to enact such a law in May 2007. In addition to Maryland, 25 other states and the District of Columbia authorize primary enforcement of their text-messaging bans.
-- Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this post.
Aaron C. Davis
| March 4, 2011; 1:38 PM ET
Categories: Aaron C. Davis, General Assembly, John Wagner
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