Hand-held cell phone ban takes effect; police see few violators on first day

On the first day of Maryland's ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving, some motorists rushed to buy devices to help them comply with the new law, while police reported seeing fewer drivers with phones pressed to their ears.

Under the restriction adopted by lawmakers this year, drivers cannot hold their cell phones while talking, except for emergency calls.

Baltimore County police officers were among those noticing fewer drivers with one hand on the wheel and the other on their devices Friday, the day the law took effect.

"The word is getting out," said Lt. Robert McCullough, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department. Motorists are "paying attention to the message, and, hopefully, that translates into safer driving and less traffic accidents."

The ban is intended to shrink the average of 31,000 car crashes a year in Maryland, though some say other distractions — applying makeup, eating a burger or adjusting a GPS system — are just as dangerous.

Among those making an 11th-hour move to comply with Maryland's new law was Amal Bawang.

For two years, the 21-year-old has sold cell phones from a stand near the front entrance to the Gallery at Harborplace. But he never thought of buying a hands-free device until days before the restrictions took effect.

"I bought it for my own safety and the law," said Bawang, who lives in Baltimore County off Security Boulevard and commutes about 15 minutes to the Inner Harbor each morning. He said he had been reluctant to buy one before because he had heard earpieces could cause medical problems.

But he doesn't want a ticket.

He chose a device that cost $100, about the midpoint of a group of products ranging from $60 to a few hundred dollars. He said he sold three others Friday.

"Usually we sell three in a week," Bawang said.

In enacting the law, Maryland joined seven other states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington — as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The violation is a secondary offense in Maryland, meaning police can issue a citation only when pulling over a driver for another violation, such as speeding.

Fines are $40 for the first offense and $100 for subsequent violations, but first-time offenders may escape a fine. According to the law, on a first offense, a judge may waive the penalty if a driver shows a receipt proving purchase of a hands-free device.

Statistics on how many drivers, if any, were issued citations or warnings Friday were not immediately available.

Agencies noted that whether officers choose to issue tickets or warn drivers is their choice, so drivers breaking the ban shouldn't count on a grace period.

"Usually the first 30 days while a law is newly enacted, we make an effort to educate the motorist," said McCullough of Baltimore County, later adding, "However, there might be circumstances where it is appropriate to issue a ticket."

Many officers observed conscientious drivers Friday, and some were even approached with questions about the ban.

In Annapolis, Officer Richard Mioduszewski, a 14-year veteran, has grown accustomed to seeing drivers holding phones to their faces. And he's been called to accident scenes in which a driver's cell phone use might have been a factor.

"I haven't seen anybody with a cell phone to their ear today," he said Friday, after spending several hours on speed enforcement on Annapolis streets.

And when he responded to calls, even those not traffic-related, he said people inquired about the law, which he said illustrated that the public seems to be aware of the restriction.

Though Christopher Robinson bought his hands-free device three months ago, he's happy about the new law.

Robinson said he had trouble chatting on his cell in stop-and-go traffic, sometimes getting distracted and nearly rear-ending a car, but hadn't gotten into an accident.

"I bought it because I was talking too much on the phone," the 40-year-old Elkridge computer systems worker said. "I was talking too much for work. I had too many close calls.

"I think this law will benefit people," he said. "The hardest thing is to break the habit of talking."

At Anne Arundel Community College, scores of students participated in a "Hands-Free Calling" event that coincided with the first day of the new law.

Taj Mustafa was taking a simulated drive when he ran over a "pedestrian" attempting to cross the street on his green light. The sophomore didn't react in time to the imagery because he was talking on his real cell phone.

"That poor woman! Dude, you killed her," shouted AACC freshman Patrick Finn, standing with a group of students who observed Mustafa, 19.

Sgt. Nancy Kutz, a crime prevention specialist in the school's department of public safety, orchestrated the event, which was conducted by Drive Square Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based driving simulation company. The company gave a similar demonstration to the school about driving while texting last year when that state ban took effect.

"We do have people on their phones constantly here, people texting while driving," said Kutz.

She said: "I go down the road talking on my cell phone; I have to figure out how to use my Bluetooth."

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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