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Days before Oct. 1, Harford politicians still reeling about pending law

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While many Harford lawmakers think Maryland's new driving laws are an overreaching of power by local government, at least one Abingdon family believes laws that prohibit distracted driving are important.

Russell Hurd, 53, supports the laws because he believes it could have saved his daughter's life five years ago.

Russell's daughter, Heather Hurd, who at the time was working for Walt Disney World in Florida, was killed instantly when her car was hit by a distracted tractor-trailer driver in January 2008. The driver was texting.

Russell, his wife and son were visiting Miss Hurd in Florida at the time of the accident to help the 26-year-old plan her upcoming wedding.

"We never imagined in a million years we would be in this position," Hurd said. "It only takes a second... To lose someone over something as preventable as distracted driving is absurd."

Just months after Miss Hurd's death, her family started a series of measures to prevent other families from dealing with a loss like theirs. They became advocates for Maryland's distracted driving laws and testified during hearings, which eventually led to the passing of the 2009 bill making using a hand held device while driving a secondary offense.

Miss Hurd's family also started a 5K walk/run in connection with Harford Community College, where Miss Hurd graduated in 2001, to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.

"Our pain is something that remains the same," Hurd said. "But no matter what we do, if you can reach at least one family, then that's enough."

In its first four years, the Heather Hurd 5K walk/run has raised $45,000 toward book scholarships for students at HCC.

The new laws, set to go into effect on Oct. 1 will change driving while using hand held device from a secondary offense to a primary offense. This means officers can pull over drivers for violating the law, without needing to cite another traffic violation. Other driving laws include mandatory seat belt use for all passengers regardless of age or their location in the vehicle.

Del. Susan McComas said while she did not vote for the driving laws, she understands the importance of driver safety.

"Driver safety issues are important," McComas said. "You are driving an instrument that weighs several tons and you can't be distracted. We have very congested roads, especially on I-95."

McComas said historically driving has been considered a privilege, not a right, by government. She also cites as a concern the strain implementing new seat belt and cell phone laws might have on the public sector.

"We have a lot of strain on the public sector as far as our police budget, and this is another layer they will have to enforce," McComas said. "I hope the public obeys the laws and we don't have to use our officers to enforce cell phone or seat belt laws."

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who represents southern Harford County, said people should charge themselves with being responsible behind the wheel of a car.

"When they don't [act responsibly] we make laws and we over-regulate," Jacobs said. "We live in a society where we try to over-regulate people's behavior."

She said laws like Maryland's distracted driver laws infringe on citizens' personal freedoms and become an invasion of privacy.

"Next they'll be telling us we can't listen to the radio or eat," Jacobs said.

Del. Richard Impallaria, who represents western Harford County, said he sees the bill as a means for generating more revenue for the state.

"I see a lot of people ride around talking on their cell phones," Impallaria said. "There's a lot of distracted drivers talking on cell phones and it will be a great revenue collector."

According to Maryland General Assembly, of the 7,349 fully licensed adults who received fines for driving while using a hand held device in 2012, at least 73 percent of all offenders paid the then $40 fine. Based on those figures, the state has generated at least $212,000 in revenue in 2012 from the law. The fines are set to increase to $75 for a first offense this year.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, who represents northern Harford County, said he would support an added push for education and awareness campaigns about the impact of driving while distracted.

"I've almost been hit in the Festival [at Bel Air shopping center] parking lot at least three times by distracted drivers," Glassman said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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