Checkpoint at Harford border Tuesday enforces new texting, seat belt laws

Two Harford County police officers jumped into their vehicles to chase a driver who refused to stop at a cell phone and seat belt checkpoint set up at the Baltimore County line on Route 1 in Fallston Tuesday morning.

Another car, which was stopped by members of the Harford County Traffic Task Force, ran out of gas. The driver, 37-year-old Kevin Carter, of Whiteford, also received a $83 seat belt ticket for his troubles.

"It's a little bit much," Carter said looking slightly annoyed. "I think the insurance companies had a hand in the seat belt bill."

Law enforcement officers across the Maryland set up checkpoints Tuesday as new state laws that make using a hand-held cell phone or electronic device while driving a primary traffic offense and that requires all occupants of a vehicle to wear a seat belt went into effect. Before Tuesday, drivers could only be cited for using a hand-held device only if they were seen violating another traffic law. Under the new law, drivers can be cited solely for using a hand-held device.

Police from Baltimore and Harford counties organized on both sides of the border along Route 1 to nudge drivers about the new law, though not necessarily to fine them, one Harford County Sheriff's deputy said.

"It's not a checkpoint, but it's more of an awareness campaign with the Maryland highway safety office," Sgt. Mike Lane, of the Harford County Sheriff's Office's Northern Precinct, said as officers of the Harford County Traffic Task force continued to pull drivers over.

The task force is made up of officers from the Sheriff's Office; the Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen police departments; Motor Vehicle Administration and Maryland State Police.

Lane said the task force decided on Tuesday's initiative to raise public awareness about the new driving laws and try to keep people safe. He said studies show seat belts save lives and distracted driving is one of the primary factors in serious injury and fatal crashes.

"Even with the road signs back there and officers lined up out here, people are still rolling by without their seat belts on and talking on their phones," Lane said. "People don't pay attention. They do what they are comfortable doing and they keep doing it."

Most of the drivers who were pulled over on Tuesday afternoon were not happy about the new laws or the tickets they were issued by traffic task force members. The Baltimore and Harford County agencies said they issued 38 citations, 28 warnings and one repair order during the two hour initiative.

Bill Villanueva, a 60-year-old ex-military employee from Street in Northern Harford County, said he never wears a seat belt while driving.

"I just come from a time where you didn't have to wear a seat belt," Villanueva said.

Villanueva said he feels like he has been "duped" by the Maryland General Assembly. He said the updates to the driving laws is a way for the Maryland legislature to make more money off of state residents.

"I pay for these roads and for these officer's salaries out of my taxes. This is just more money out of my pocket," Villanueva said. "The people who are in accidents causing havoc are stoned on drugs or drinking, so you have a guy like myself who is going to work being pulled over... Why?"

Villanueva said he particularly feels duped because of how the seat belt and phone laws were originally implemented – as secondary violations that police could not just pull a driver over and cite them for a violation.

"We're been dubbed as a people, as constituents," he said. "We went from 'hey don't worry about that, this is a non issue' to now it's an issue because I'm getting pulled over and possibly getting a point" on his driving record.

Stephen C. Wollett Jr.,44, of Stewartstown, Pa., was pulled over as he was driving to his store in Perryville. Wollett said he prefers not to wear a seat belt after he said he has, as a volunteer firefighter, witnessed people injured by seat belts.

"Working in the fire department I've seen far too many injuries related to seat belts," Wollett said. "I've seen lacerated spleens, ruptured organs and broken collar bones."

While Wollett received only a warning for his seat belt violation, he said he believes the new driving laws are "merely a means of generating revenue and nothing more."

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