Six weeks after Maryland enacted a law banning cell phone use while driving, state and county police agencies say they are pleased with its effectiveness.
"The cell phone law is another added tool that we have to just try and keep the roadways as safe as possible," said Sgt. Marc Black, a spokesman for Maryland State Police.
Senate Bill 369, and its counterpart in the House, passed during the 2013 Maryland legislative session. The law makes it a primary offense for "the fully licensed driver's hands to use a hand held telephone, while the vehicle is in motion, except to initiate or terminate a wireless phone call or to turn on or off the hand held telephone," according to the 2013 Legislative Wrapup on the General Assembly's website.
Previously, using a cell phone while driving was a secondary offense, meaning police could cite a driver for cell phone use only if the driver was violating another law, such as exceeding the speed limit.
Now, according to Black, motorists caught using a cell phone while driving could be fined $83 for a first offense, $140 for the second offense and $160 for any subsequent offenses.
Black said the new law has made it much easier for police to crack down on distracted driving.
"As troopers patrol the roadways, they are checking vehicles as they are proceeding," said Black, a former Catonsville resident. "If you see a driver with a phone up to their ear, it makes it very easy to see that they're on the phone.
"If you see someone who is distracted, someone who is looking down and not paying full attention to operating their vehicle, that's a tell tale sign [they might be on a cell phone]," he said.
Capt. Doug Irwin, commander of Baltimore County's Wilkens Police Station, said the new law has also helped officers crack down on other types of crime as well.
He cited the portion of Route 40 between I-695 and the Baltimore City line and the area surrounding Bero Road in Lansdowne as two trouble spots for his officers, who patrol the southwest portion of Baltimore County.
"In your high-crime areas, it is no surprise to anyone that there are a large number of automobile accidents," Irwin said. "We are redirecting patrols to these areas.
"As we have ramped up our motor vehicle law enforcement in those areas — speeding, seat belts, cellular telephones, registration violations, stop sign violations — our crime numbers have dropped significantly in both areas," he said.
"Our traffic enforcement numbers are higher than they have been in years and our crime numbers are lower than they've been in years," Irwin said.
Though state and county data showing the number of cell phone citations issued in October won't be available until late November, Irwin said he thinks the law has already heightened motorists' awareness.
"Most people now pay a little closer attention and they see how dangerous texting and driving is," he said. "In a car that's 4,000 pounds, that's hurtling down the road at 50 miles per hour, you need to pay attention to that."
A continuing process
Buel Young, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration's Highway Safety Office, said efforts to increase safety will continue for some time.
"With all of our safety campaigns, it is an ongoing campaign," he said of the cell phone law. "These all fit into our overall mission of trying to move the state toward zero deaths from highway crashes, so this falls right into line."
Christine Sarames Delise, a public affairs specialist with AAA, said she thinks it will be some time before there will be notable decreases in accidents related to distracted driving .
"Even after the law went into effect Oct. 1, we still see motorists daily holding their phone to their ear while driving," she said.
"However, as law enforcement continues to cite motorists ,we believe in time that compliance will be much higher and seeing a motorist talking on a hand held cell phone will be a rare sight," Delise said.
Del. James Malone, who represents District 12A that includes part of Catonsville and Arbutus, was the driving force behind getting the new law passed. He aid he thinks enforcement will be the key measure of the law's success.
"I know a lot of areas are enforcing it, and we just have to continue to do that," Malone said. "'I've been working with the State Highway Administration to make sure they put reminders up ... on signs, all throughout the state, and on those boards.
"I've worked with all the different police agencies and I think they're doing a great job around the state dealing with it," he said. 'The more peer pressure and all that's put on people, they'll get into the habit of not having it in their hand."
Malone was positive about the law's first weeks of implementation.
He said he thinks people are already starting to adjust their driving and cell phone use habits.
" "Because the ticket is so expensive, people are really cognizant of it," Malone said. "I think a lot of people realize how doggone dangerous it is" to drive while using a cell phone.