Howard police ready to answer call on new cellphone law

Howard County police will take seriously the new state law that starts Tuesday, Oct. 1 that allows officers to stop drivers using a handheld cellphone while operating a vehicle.

"We have seen first-hand the loss of life and tragedy caused by distracted driving, and are asking our officers to be highly vigilant and active in its enforcement," said Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon in a statement.

The new law states a police officer can issue a primary offense citation for drivers talking on a handheld cellphone. Currently, an officer can issue only a citation if the vehicle is stopped for another reason.

Starting Oct. 1, a first offense will cost $75 and a second offense $125. The maximum penalty for subsequent offenses is $175. The fines are increases over the current law, which docks the offender $40 for a first offense and $100 for any subsequent offenses.

Also going into effect Tuesday is a law that requires mandatory seatbelt use for all passengers regardless of age or their location in the vehicle. It is a primary offense for the driver and front-seat passenger not to be buckled, and a secondary offense for back-seat passengers not to be buckled. Both carry a maximum fine of $50. Also children under the age of 8 and 4 feet 9 must be in a child seat.

"We have details scheduled over the next weeks to enforce the new cellphone law as well as the new seatbelt law," McMahon said. "Traffic safety is public safety."

Police spokeswoman Mary T. Phelan said police have advertised the change on electronic message boards throughout the county.

Internally, McMahon said the department has briefed its officers on the new law.

"We have educated our officers on the new law and provided them reference materials," McMahon said. "We have also had Commanders attending patrol briefings to answer any questions on the new law and stress its importance."

Phelan said the department issued an internal policy in 2010 prohibiting officer's use of cellphones and texting while driving unless equipped with a hands-free device.

There is one exception to Maryland's new cellphone law: drivers can use their phone to call 911 in the event of an emergency

Using handheld cell phones while driving has been banned in Washington, D.C., since 2004, while Virginia still allows drivers to hold their phone will driving. Texting is banned while driving in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

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