Maryland Distracted Driving Laws
- Handheld ban for all drivers (Secondary Law).
- Ban on all cell phone (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers (Secondary Law).
- Ban on texting for all drivers (Primary Law).
Maryland’s Texting While Driving Stand
The state of Maryland’s distracted driving laws seems to be on the verge of yet another overhaul in 2012. This comes against the backdrop of several amendments since its enactment by Senate Bill 98 in 2009. Currently, the House is in session with five Distracted Driving Bills pending in the “hopper” at the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representative; their respective sponsors: ”hopefuls” in the battle for a comprehensive reform of the state’s existing distracted driving laws. These “new” bills are more or fewer amendments to the different sections of the current Distracted Driving Statute, and have been previously introduced in the House, in part at the very least, but failed to make it to legislation.
House Bill 104, sponsored by State Delegate Jimmy Malone, House Bill 123 (Clagett), and Senate Bill 217 (Robey) all agree that the secondary enforcement status currently in effect for violators of handheld cell phone use law, should be upgraded to that of primary enforcement status; equal to the text messaging law which currently has primary enforcement status for violators. In addition to upgrading enforcement status for handheld cell phone use, offenders, House Bills 104 and 217, are in accordance with their proposal to change the requirement that the motor vehicle must be “in motion” for the offense to occur, to “in the travel portion of the roadway”. Both bills also agree in their resolution to remove the reduced fines and restrictions on assigning points against the licenses of first-time offenders.
As mentioned earlier, these proposals are not completely new. Previously, House Bill 222 was introduced in 2011 by Malone calling for the enactment to remove the “secondary status enforcement tag status assigned to distracted driving legislation” and that sanctions should be applied to “the travel portion of the roadway” and not just while the vehicle is moving. This bill was approved in the House by a majority vote in March of last year but was ultimately rejected by the Judiciary Committee in the senate the following month.
Delegate Jim Malone has introduced several bills geared towards “improving” the distracted driving laws and his unrelenting efforts could perhaps be attributed to 35 years of service as a volunteer with Maryland’s firefighting department thus being witness to the devastating and lasting effects of accidents caused by drivers who were allegedly distracted by the telephone and/or other electronic devices. Some proponents of House Bill 222 expressed disappointment with the unfavorable outcome received from the Senate. In a statement released after the unfavorable report, Talbot County Sheriff, Dallas Pope, a member of the Maryland Sheriff Legislative Committee, was quoted in saying that, ”… They (Judiciary Committee) missed an opportunity to reduce the number of injuries and accidents caused by distracted drivers”.
The two other distracted driving bills to reach the hopper so far are House Bill 55 (Malone) and Senate Bill 527 (Robe). Both propose to make the distinction between cell phones and texting devices in the distracted driving law definition and propose the possibility of a 90-day license suspension or license restriction as punishment for text messaging offenders under 18 years old. This modification comes after a recent revision (HB 196 & SB 424) of the texting law that previously allowed drivers to read text messages while they were driving, and also compose and send messages (text) while they were stationary at a red traffic light.
House Bill 196 (Malone), the same as Senate Bill 424 (Brochin) was signed into law on May 19, 2011, and came into effect on October 1, 2011, less than six months ago, as a necessity to fill the “loopholes” – evident flaws, in the existing distracted driving legislation. While these bills had strong support both at the House and the Senate levels, the approval did not come about without its fair share of opposition. Emotions were unveiled during statements made by opponents who regarded the legislation as an invasion of personal liberties, while another expressed concern that it would become a tool used inappropriately by law enforcement personnel: specifically in the context of racial profiling. In addition, several last-minute amendments were put forward in an attempt to convince the Senate that distracted driving was too broad a spectrum to be regulated by sanctions.
Currently distracting driving prohibitions fall under three categories:
Text Messaging Law – forbidden for all drivers. As defined by Maryland Statutes (Sec 21-1124.1) “… a person may not use a text messaging device to write, send or read a text message or an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle in the travel portion of the roadway.” This precludes the use of a global positioning system (GPS), and the use of text messaging to contact 911 emergency systems. Violators of this law are subject to primary level enforcement.
Hand-Held Cell phone Use Law – outlawed for all drivers and carries a fine of $40-$100. This rule does not apply to (a) law enforcement personal, (b) emergency personnel, (c) use of a cell phone to call 911 or other emergency services, and (c) “walkie-talkie” as a means of communication by persons operating commercial motor vehicles as defined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Maryland Statutes (Sec 21-1124.2). Violators of this law are subject to secondary enforcement.
Drivers under the age of 18 Years with Learner’s Permits or Intermediate Licenses Law – all are banned from using cell phones while driving. This includes both handheld and hands-free devices. This does not include making calls to 911. Maryland Statutes (Sec 21-1124). Violators of this law are subject to secondary level enforcement.
Maryland lawmakers identified the need to restrict the use of cell phones and have been fighting for the regulation of cell phones and other handheld devices for years. It took approximately 10 years for text messaging law, also known as the Delegate John Arnick Electronic Communications Traffic Safety Act, as a tribute to the late John Arnick, who for 8 years tried relentlessly to get some form of cell phone enactment through the Maryland General Assembly, up till his death in 2006.
No law, however, was ever written into the books until Governor Martin O’Malley signed Senate Bill 98(Stone) on April 7, 2009: making it illegal to drive and send text messages simultaneously in the state of Maryland. This legislation went into effect on October 1 of the same year. This came on the heels of House Bill 72 which was favorably approved by the House with a majority vote and sent to the Senate on March 27, 2009. The new text messaging law exempted reading a text while driving.
During the (SB 98) debate Senator Norman Stone stressed the dangers of texting while driving, and drove home the point that the introduction of the bill was his attempt to save lives as well as to prevent accidents and injuries. Co-Sponsor, Senator James Raskin, also saw the bill as a step in the right direction to enhance public safety. Republican opponents resisted what they considered exorbitant penalty fees, and filed an amendment to have the maximum $500 fee removed. This amendment, in addition to another one that would relegate text messaging offence to that of secondary enforcement status, was rejected in the Senate. Senate Bill 98 attracted much support from the public including the Baltimore Sun and AAA Mid-Atlantic, whose representative agreed that among the many distractions facing motorists, text messaging was extreme by nature and potentially increases safety risks.
The legislation of Senate Bill 98 pioneered Maryland’s distracted driving laws; a turning point in debates surrounding cell phone driving bills from as early as 1999. During the 2008 session, Senate Bill 2 (Lenett) became the first hand-held proposal to be approved by the state’s legislative body, even though the bill never survived beyond the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Subsequently, in 2009 Governor O’Malley exercised his executive powers and banned the use of handheld cell phones by government employees driving government vehicles. Several other amendments were proposed by the House during the next two years, some with favorable outcomes:
• Senate Bill 321, sponsored by Senator Norman R. Stone, Jr., and friend of the late legislator, Delegate John Arnick. This (SB 321) went into effect on October 1, 2010, and prohibits the use of handheld cell phones while operating a vehicle in motion; prohibits the use of handheld cell phones by school bus drivers, and individuals with learners permit. It carries a secondary enforcement status and fines of $40-$100.
• Senate Bill 424: An update on existing legislation prohibiting text messaging while driving, to include “reading” messages as well, and also changing the language as defined in the current statute to include a ban on text messaging when the vehicle is stopped in traffic. This went into effect on October 1, 2011.
The National Safety Council 2011 update, estimates that at least 1.3 million crashes involve cell phone use per year-a reduction of 300,000 over last year.