March 7, 2011
Annie Linskey reports:
The state Senate gave final approval Monday night to a bill that would prohibit motorists from reading text messages while driving, moving the issue toward the governor’s desk.
The legislation would close a loophole lawmakers left open two years ago when they banned drivers from writing texts while driving. That legislation remained silent on reading the messages.
“Texting is blowing up,” said Sen. James Brochin, who led the effort to ban reading the electronic messages while driving. The bill passed 35 to 11.
“One more year of legislators on the road and seeing someone who was not paying attention cause a near accident is enough to give anyone pause,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. His bill also covers reading emails.
The National Safety Council estimates that 28 percent of all traffic accidents involve a motorist talking on a cell phone or texting while driving.
But in a lively Senate debate last week Republicans argued Maryland’s proposed ban overreaches. Why not criminalize reading a newspaper or book while driving? Why not make it illegal to drink a soda behind the wheel?
Brochin said reading a text requires more time and attention because it is interactive.
“People glance at a newspaper,” Brochin said. “When you are reading a text, you want to get all of it.”
The bill also covers motorists who are stopped at traffic signals or stop signs. Brochin argued that those who check their phones when stopped temporarily become absorbed in their messaging and frequently fail to start moving when a light changes, throwing off other motorists.
Checking a GPS application on a smart phone would still be allowed under Brochin’s bill.
A similar ban on texting sponsored by Del. James Malone passed in the House last week 115 to 23.
Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat, is hoping the texting ban will be paired with another bill he is sponsoring to strengthen legislation the General Assembly passed last year that prohibits talking on cell phone while driving.
Violating that rule is a secondary offense, meaning police can stop drivers only if they are violating another law. But Malone is pushing to empower officers to pull over anyone talking on their phone without a hands-free device. A measure that would do that was voted out of committee last week.
Malone said he believes drivers initially adhered to the cell phone ban when it went into effect in October, but became more willing to violate it as they learned they could not be pulled over for just talking while driving.
There’s been scant enforcement of the texting ban since it was passed last year: Police issued little more than 200 citations, according the Maryland District Court. The penalty is a $500 fine.