Driving laws appear to get green light in Annapolis

April 05, 2010|By Michael Dresser Getting there

Election years are usually years of loud noise and little action in the Maryland General Assembly.

Governors tend to push their most difficult and costly proposals in the early years of their terms, hoping voters' memories have faded by the time the voters speak again. Legislators are often less concerned about what they can write into law than in setting political traps for their opponents.

But that doesn't mean election-year sessions have to be unproductive when it comes to less-partisan issues such as motor-vehicle laws. And this spring's session, which ends in a week, is shaping up as a consequential year on that topic.

If all goes according to House leaders' plans, Maryland will have some form of hand-held cell phone ban on its way to the governor by the end of the week.

Also having a good shot this session is a tougher law on ignition interlocks - the devices that prevent drivers from starting their cars if they have alcohol on their breath. It's unlikely to be the bill opponents hoped for, but it could be a meaningful step.

It would be a surprise at this point if the General Assembly didn't complete action on one of the sleeper bills of the session: an overhaul of Maryland's traffic court procedures that could affect almost everyone who receives a ticket. And that's a lot of us.

It also seems likely that the state's bicyclists will get their wish as the General Assembly seems inclined to approve a bill requiring motorists to keep 3 feet of distance from our two-wheeled friends.

Drunken drivers, cell phone addicts, traffic scofflaws and folks who like to play Buzz the Bikes might disagree, but those proposals collectively represent significant advances in state law. The measures aren't nearly as aggressive as highway safety advocates might dream of, but each in its own way would improve upon the status quo.

The cell phone measure that has the best shot of passage is Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr.'s bill named after the late Del. John Arnick, who was pushing the issue of these newfangled devices distracting drivers more than a decade ago. It's not a particularly strong bill. It allows an officer to pull over a motorist seen chatting on a hand-held cell phone only if the violator were committing some other offense, such as speeding. Those caught would face a fine of only $40 for a first offense.

Even in its diluted state, the bill squeaked through the Senate on a 24-23 voter. Key House leaders know there's little room for haggling and are inclined to pass the Senate bill as is - sending it to the governor.

The measure is far from hollow, however. If it passes the House unscathed and wins the governor's approval - as is expected - it would establish that driving down the road with one hand on the wheel and another holding a phone to one's ear is illegal. From that point forward, every new driver would learn from the get-go that using hand-held phones while driving is against the law, not just against well-meaning advice. That counts for something.

According to my spies, the ignition interlock bill is likely to be amended in the House to require ignition interlocks for first-time offenders who are found guilty and who register a blood-alcohol level that is considerably above the .08 limit. The question, I'm told, is whether that will be defined as .12 or .15. The .15 limit would be a victory for the alcoholic beverage industry, which has pushed the idea of limiting the first-time sanction to so-called "super drunks" but .12 could be seen as a reasonable compromise. That's plenty drunk. Look for this one to come down to the wire.

The traffic court bill would put the burden on people who receive tickets to request a trial if they want a day in court. The measure is aimed at cutting the vast number of violators who fail to appear in court under the current system that assigns a trial date automatically and calls it off only if the fine is prepaid.

This measure has been pushed heavily by police chiefs as a way to cut the enormous amount of money wasted in paying overtime for officers to go to court for trials that never happen. That's a significant budget savings, but the bill could also have the effect of making traffic court less of a joke in the eyes of everyone involved. When an individual blows off a traffic court appearance, it helps undermine the entire system. One can hope the likely passage of this measure would lead to further reforms that upgrade the professionalism of the entire system. In the long run, we'd all be safer.

The bicycle measure failed in past years - partly because of prejudices against bicyclists and partly because of concerns about enforcement. But Del. James E. Malone Jr., the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the motor vehicle subcommittee, said he believes the stars are aligned for passage this year. Let's hope he's right. It's a bill that's about courtesy. And we could all use more of that.

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