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Maryland warns distracted drivers

Press conference with state officials launching law

Hands-free law takes effect Friday

[This post has been updated]

During my online chat Monday, a traveler asked a question about the new cellphone law that will take effect Friday in Maryland.

Q. I drive from D.C. to Laurel/Columbia every day. I have no problem with the new hands-free law in Maryland but I am wondering why there are no signs along the highways alerting motorists. If this is really a safety campaign and not a way to generate revenue, why is the state not posting signs? Remember "click it or ticket?" There were signs and commercials with law enforcement officers. Is it legal for states (or cities, in the case of D.C.) to create a new driving law without posting signs?

MD cell phone signs.jpg Maryland's cell phone warnings. (Thomson)

DG: Here's an update. The photo shows the warning sign that Maryland transportation and safety officials unveiled this afternoon at the Laurel welcome center on northbound Interstate 95. Several dozen of the signs will be on display along highways at the state's borders starting Friday. Also, drivers will see warnings about the new law on the highways' variable message signs.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley had another way of stating the message: "Put down the phone and just drive."

The new law, passed during the 2010 session of the Maryland General Assembly and signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, prohibits drivers from using a cell phone without a hands-free device while the vehicle is in motion on a street or highway. Drivers under 18 already are prohibited from using cell phones of any kind.

A first offense carries a $40 fine, with $100 fines for further offenses. No points are assessed against the driver's license for a first offense, unless it contributes to a crash, in which case three points are assessed. Another violation would lead to a one-point assessment, plus the fine.

There are these exceptions to the law: Phones can be used to call 911 or other emergency services. Emergency personnel and law enforcement officers are exempt. A driver is allowed to use hands in turning a phone on or off, or in initiating and ending a call.

This is a secondary offense. An officer can't stop a driver just for using the cell phone inappropriately. The officer would first have to stop the driver for a primary offense, such as speeding or negligent driving. Then further violations, including cell phone use, could be assessed.

The warning sign takes a double shot at distracted driving by also noting that it's illegal to text while driving in Maryland. That law has been in effect for a year. It prohibits drivers from writing or sending text messages while the vehicle is in motion, or in a travel lane. There's a fine of up to $500 for this primary offense. The exceptions here are for texting 911, or for using a GPS navigation system.

"Motorists today are operating at a much faster pace -- and I'm not talking about speeding," said Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, whose troopers will be helping enforce the new law. He acknowledged it's difficult for law enforcement to discover violations of this type, and said he hoped that the law and the surrounding publicity about the dangers of distracted driving would help modify motorists' behavior.

Maryland joins seven other states and the District in adopting a hands-free law. Others include Maryland neighbor Delaware, but not Virginia or Pennsylvania.

We talk so much about cell phones and texting when we talk about distracted driving. It's worth noting that distractions take many forms. Among those that Maryland officials name are: Checking PDAs, personal grooming, eating and drinking, adjusting the audio system, changing clothes, talking with passengers, adjusting the vehicle controls and browsing the Internet.

By Robert Thomson  | October 1, 2010; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  Driving, Highways, Maryland, Traffic Safety  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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Sadly, the Maryland law requiring the use of headsets will likely not have much positive impact, and may actually raise the liklihood of crashes among many drivers.

Data indicate that cell phone conversations while driving result in a higher amount of distraction than a conversation with a person present in the car with the driver, and that the level of distraction it is equivalent to driving while intoxicated.

More to the point, using a headset makes NO difference. It does not reduce the increased risk of a crash because the crash risk is increased by the conversation itself:

Unfortunately, I suspect that at least some people, upon hearing of this law, will buy headsets, mistakenly thinking that they will be engaging in safer driving behavior. Risk Compensation research suggests that this feeling of increased safety will result in these people taking MORE risks - that is, engaging in more and/or longer cell phone conversations, thus increasing their risk of crashing.

So in the end, the law probably will backfire. But then again, it's a rather toothless law seeing as one only gets fined if they first commit another violation.

The cell phone lobby sure is powerful, and those who have lost loved ones and friends from distracted driving are unfortunately a lot less influential...

Posted by: informedtraveller | September 28, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Can they add "No Putting On Makeup While Driving" too? I can't keep up with the number of idiotic women (who for some reason always seem to be driving in front of me) who put on makeup while driving. What's wrong with putting your makeup on BEFORE you leave home? I do.

Posted by: jameon | September 28, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

80% percent of all rear end collisions (the most frequent vehicle accident) are caused by driver inattention. I doubt if we'll ever stop the madness so I got one of these from - to reduce whiplash and protect my family.

Posted by: KrystalKid | September 29, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Regardless of whether the law proves effective, I like that sign. It's a nice clear design that gets right to the point. I compare it to Virginia's signs that say "Headlights on When Using Wipers." Nowhere do Virginia's signs say "State Law" nor contain the black-on-yellow to draw the motorist's attention to the sign. The yellow is quite eye-catching.

In answer to the question posed in Dr. Gridlock's original entry, though: "It is legal for states (or cities, in the case of D.C.) to create a new driving law without posting signs?" Hasn't the questioner ever heard the old phrase "ignorance of the law is no excuse"? The only way it would be "illegal" is if there were some sort of federal law or regulation pre-empting state authority on this sort of thing. Obviously, there's a very thorough federal manual on road signage that states must follow (for example, states are not free to use green circles as stop signs), but no federal regulation requires every state to advise every driver of every minute state regulation, and on the whole it would be rather inappropriate for the feds to intrude into what are inherently state-law issues.

Posted by: 1995hoo | October 1, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Additional data on how hand-free laws do not reduce crashes:
"The [hands-free] laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," says Adrian Lund, president of both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and HLDI.

Posted by: informedtraveller | October 1, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Lovely. I had to travel Friday afternoon from Lanham to Columbia and back. I passed three of the overhead signs that were alternately flashing "Don't Drive Distracted" and "No texting, No hand held cell phone use" or something like that. In all three cases, people were slowing down to read the overhead signs, in some cases, abruptly slowing down and the Friday afternoon traffic was building up. Then, they would rapidly speed up immediately past the sign. Talk about distracted driving.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | October 1, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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