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Don't read texts while driving, lawmakers say

Not long ago, Sgt. Holly Barrett of the Maryland State Police pulled over a young woman who'd blown through a red light while looking at her cell phone. The driver, Barrett told lawmakers Tuesday, was so distracted that she had stopped, started to read the messages, and then — not realizing the light was still red — stepped on the gas.

Two years ago, state legislators outlawed writing or sending messages while driving. Last year, they banned talking on handheld cell phones as a secondary offense, making it illegal, but requiring police to have another reason, such as speeding, to initiate a traffic stop.

Now lawmakers are pushing again to expand prohibitions on cell phone use behind the wheel. Proposals this year include a ban on reading texts or electronic messages such as e-mails while driving, and enabling officers to pull over drivers talking on their handheld devices even if they are not breaking any other laws.

Legislative leaders say the reading ban, reviewed Tuesday by House and Senate committees, is likely to become law this year, but they believe making cell phone use a primary offense might have to wait.

No one testified against the reading ban at Tuesday's hearing. Supporters include the Maryland State Police, AAA, insurance brokers and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Tom Hicks, an official with the supportive State Highway Administration, called the legislation "almost a housekeeping matter."

Some legislators have been reluctant to criminalize driver behavior. The handheld cell ban passed the Senate last year by just one vote.

Sen. Robert Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted against the bill last year said drivers do many things — putting on makeup, eating, reading the newspaper — that are just as unsafe as using a cell phone.

"Do we really need to go down the list and address each one individually?" he asked. "There are laws against reckless driving."

Part of the effort this year is to clear up confusion about the cell phone laws.

Barrett said some of her fellow police colleagues don't realize Maryland's texting law contains the nuance that allows reading.

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is one of the sponsors of the proposed reading ban, said Maryland has "this strange law where police have to try to figure out if somebody's writing a text or reading a text."

But much about Maryland's approach to cell phones and driving is complicated.

Officers can pull drivers over for writing or sending (but not reading) text messages even if they are breaking no other laws. They can't do that if they spot drivers chatting away.

The texting ban applies only to drivers who are in the travel portion of the roadway, even if stopped dead in traffic. To legally text, a driver needs to pull onto the shoulder. However, it's perfectly legal for a driver to talk on a cell phone while stopped because the law prohibits it only "while in motion."

Penalties also differ. Texting violators are subject to a maximum fine of $500 and one point on their driving record. Talkers face a maximum fine of $40 and no points unless the driver contributes to an accident.

Del. James E. Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat, is pushing legislation to make the talking restrictions mirror the texting restrictions by prohibiting all use of handheld devices while in lanes of traffic.

His bill, supported by law enforcement officials, also would make talking a primary offense. Malone compared the cell phone issue to seat belt laws put on the books years ago. At first, failure to wear a seat belt was a secondary offense. When it became a primary offense, he said, compliance "shot up dramatically." It's now about 96 percent, he said.

Malone believes that as drivers realize that they can't be pulled over for talking unless they're doing something else wrong, "they're taking the chance of using the phone."

The Senate and House of Delegates both passed bans on reading texts while behind the wheel last year, but slightly different wording in the two bills doomed it in the final hours of the legislative session.

Electronic messages included in the proposed ban include emails, tweets and videos. Of the 30 states that have outlawed texting while driving, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation, just five ban writing but not reading.

There are exceptions in the existing and proposed texting laws for using a global positioning device or contacting emergency services.

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