Ban on texting passes House

Senate also voted to bar messaging while driving

General Assembly 2009

April 02, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Texting while driving, an increasingly popular practice that has caused high-profile accidents in recent years, could result in a $500 fine under a ban approved Wednesday by the Maryland House of Delegates and earlier by the Senate.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign off on the prohibition, which would take effect Oct. 1, adding Maryland to a short but growing list of states that bar sending messages while behind the wheel. This year, 33 states were considering similar proposals, according to AAA, and Virginia's governor signed a ban into law Monday.

The House plan prohibits writing or sending text messages from a phone or hand-held electronic device, such as a BlackBerry, while a driver is in travel lanes - even if stopped at a red light or in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But unlike the Senate version, it does not outlaw reading messages.

Also exempted in the House bill are text messages sent to a 911 system, a means of communication with emergency responders that could grow over time. It also specifically allows the use of direction-finding global positioning systems.

The two chambers must work out their differences before the General Assembly session ends in 11 days.

Although the proposal received overwhelming support, clearing the House by a vote of 133-2 and the Senate by a margin of 43-4, it came after lawmakers again rejected a prohibition on drivers using phones and hand-held communications devices and an even broader effort to clamp down on distracted driving.

Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Democrat who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, said lawmakers might be divided about how to handle cell phone usage in cars but they recognize text-messaging while driving as "a clear hazard." He said he has seen polls showing that more than nine in 10 respondents think the practice should be illegal.

"You need to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road," he said.

Malone said lawmakers chose to forbid driver texting even from stopped vehicles in order to keep traffic flowing. "We didn't want people sitting at a light sending off five messages," he said. However, the ban would not prevent someone pulled over on the shoulder from sending a message.

In legislative hearings this year, Maryland residents and police described horrific accidents caused by drivers sending text messages. Russell and Kim Hurd of Harford County recalled how their daughter and another young woman were killed in a pileup near Orlando, Fla., caused by a truck driver distracted by a text message.

"Because of texting while driving, I will never hold a grandchild born to my daughter," Russell Hurd told lawmakers. "Because of texting while driving, I will never hear my daughter's voice or her little giggle ever again."

No study has examined the correlation between text-messaging and vehicle accidents, but driver inattention is a factor in 80 percent of crashes nationwide, accounting for 4.9 million accidents, 34,000 fatalities and 2.1 million injuries, according to a legislative analysis.

Ragina C. Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said passage of a texting ban "bodes well for safety on our roadways."

"Although there are numerous distractions facing motorists, this is an extreme distraction and one which poses increased safety risks by the very nature of the activity," she said.

The House and Senate proposals make texting while driving a misdemeanor traffic violation and a primary offense, meaning that police can stop motorists suspected of sending messages even if the officer sees no other violation. Some lawmakers had preferred making the violation a secondary offense, so citations could be issued only if motorists were stopped for another infraction.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he disapproves of texting while driving but believes a ban is "completely unenforceable" under the Assembly's plan.

With nearly all mobile telephones able to send and receive messages, "how would an officer know if you are sending a message or dialing a phone number?" asked Zirkin, an attorney, adding that he does not think officers have the authority to seize a driver's phone to check for evidence of texting.

But Malone said the primary offense designation gives the law gravity. When Maryland strengthened seat-belt laws in 1998, changing the violation from a secondary to a primary offense, compliance rose from 71 percent to 83 percent and now is about 93 percent, he said.

"That's exactly what we want to see happen with text messaging," Malone said.

Averella said that making texting a primary offense "shows the legislature is serious. People will know it's illegal and they'll stop doing it."

Eight states and the District of Columbia bar text-messaging while driving, though some of them also more broadly prohibit driver cell phone use without a hands-free device. Many cities and towns, including Chicago, Detroit and Phoenix, have texting bans.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine signed a ban into law Monday, though officers would be able to cite drivers only if they are pulled over for a more serious offense. Lawmakers in Delaware are considering a texting ban.

SIMILAR LEGISLATION

States that bar text-messaging while driving: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington

Places that ban driver use of cell phones without a hands-free device: California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah, Washington and the District of Columbia

Texting bans approved and awaiting enactment: Maryland, New Mexico and Utah

Sources: AAA and Sun news services

Counties seek state's OK to cut spending on local schools. PG 3

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