PIKESVILLE – It’s been six months since the Maryland law banning cellphone usage while driving became more strict, and the number of drivers ticketed has more than tripled.
The change in state law makes driving while talking on a hand-held phone a primary offense, allowing police officers to stop a driver on Maryland roadways for just holding their phone.
And later this year, penalties for causing a serious or fatal car crash while talking on the phone or texting will increase, according to a measure Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law Monday.
According to the District Court of Maryland, police throughout the state charged 14,490 drivers for using a handheld phone while driving between Oct. 1, 2013, when the law took effect, and April 1, 2014. In the seven months before the new law took effect, between March 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2013, police charged 4,096 drivers with using a cellphone as a secondary offense, ticketed in conjunction with another violation.
Maryland State Police Sgt. Marc Black said police just want to make sure that drivers are safe.
“It is definitely a necessary law — we need to remove as many distractions from the driver as they operate the vehicle,” Black said.
Currently, the fine for using a handheld phone while driving is $83 for the first offense, $140 for the second offense and $160 for the third offense. Under current law, if a driver causes an accident while using their phone they will receive the same amount of fines plus three points on their driving record.
Starting Oct. 1, the measure called “Jake’s Law” — named for 5-year-old Baltimore boy Jake Owen who was killed in 2011 when his family’s car was struck by another driver talking on a cellphone — allows for enhanced penalties, including a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail for drivers who cause a serious or fatal crash while using a cellphone or texting.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association; 12 states, D.C. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones while driving.
Ronald Duke, a Prince George’s County resident, said although the law bars using a hand-held device while driving, he still chooses to use his phone while driving for work or emergency purposes.
“I have to admit sometimes I’m just driving and trying to get somewhere and I have to call somebody and tell them I’m on my way,” Duke said.
Other drivers have turned to hands-free devices since the law has passed.
Lea Claye, a Beltsville resident, said she uses Apple iPhone’s Dictation service, which allows the user to use their voice to write and send a text message.
“The good thing about iPhone is that I just started using the talk and text, so I might still have my phone in my hand but I can talk into it, and it will write out the message for me,” Claye said.
Although hands-free devices such as Bluetooth headsets or built-in calling systems in vehicles allow drivers to talk without holding their phones, studies show that drivers are still distracted when using them.
Howard Egeth, a psychological and brain sciences professor at Johns Hopkins University, said hands-free devices still require drivers to be mentally engaged.
“People would think that hands-free is better, but really it turns out that the research shows that it’s about as bad. The hands-free [device] still involves the brain pretty fully it just frees up your hands, but you’re still engaged,” Egeth said.
For now, police hope that the law will help drivers become more focused on the road and less focused on their phones.
“Some people are still maybe not paying as much attention to the law as they should, so we hope that they will pay attention, they will move all the distractions from their vehicle so they can operate the vehicle in a safe manner,” Black said.