Police issue hundreds of tickets under tougher cellphone law

Motorists around Maryland found their cellphone conversations interrupted by flashing blue lights Tuesday, as tougher restrictions went into effect on the use of hand-held devices while driving.

Police were on the lookout for people driving with phones to their ears on the first day of a state law that makes the violation a primary traffic offense. Previously, drivers could only be cited if they were stopped for breaking another traffic law.

Officials around the state said they were issuing a mixture of warnings and citations as they attempted to get motorists acquainted with the new restrictions. In some areas, police took the occasion to remind drivers of another new requirement that all passengers wear seat belts.

State Police issued 122 citations and 84 warnings yesterday for violations of the new cellphone law, according to spokesman Gregory M. Shipley.  

Anne Arundel County police said they handed out 165 tickets and citations for improper cellphone use and seat belt violations during an enforcement effort with state police along West Street and Riva Road in Annapolis.

On Tuesday morning, Baltimore County police and Harford County sheriff's deputies worked with the State Highway Administration and state police to enforce the new laws along U.S. 1. Together, the police agencies said, they issued 38 citations and 28 warnings during the two-hour initiative.

Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County police, said the number of violations recorded by her agency "tells us that motorists still need to adapt to the reality of the new laws."

The cellphone measure was among hundreds that took effect Tuesday. Among the others are high-profile laws banning the sale of some types of guns and repealing the death penalty.

Concerned about the dangers of distracted driving, the General Assembly passed a hand-held cellphone ban in 2010 but made it a "secondary" offense that could only be enforced along with other violations. This year, supporters argued that drivers had been given enough time to get used to the law and persuaded lawmakers to tighten enforcement.

State law already allowed police to pull over vehicles whose drivers and front-seat passengers were unbuckled. This year, lawmakers added a new restriction making it a secondary offense for adults in the back seat to ride without seat belts. Previously, only minors had been required to use either seat belts or child safety seats in back seats.

The crackdown was tough to stomach for Bill Villanueva, a 60-year-old ex-military employee pulled over by Harford deputies. The resident of Street in northern Harford County said he never wears a seat belt while driving.

"I pay for these roads and for these officers' 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?"

As officers continued to stop drivers, Sgt. Mike Lane of the Harford sheriff's office said the day's efforts were "more of an awareness campaign."

"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."

Police say they'll continue to push awareness of the law. Anne Arundel County police Cpl. Nicholas DiPietro, a traffic coordinator, said county police are planning more enforcement efforts over the next two months.

He said almost all the drivers he pulled over Tuesday were aware of the new law and supported it.

"Compliance was high today, much higher than I expected," he said.

Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a Baltimore police spokesman, said the agency's crash team, which is responsible for traffic-related issues, sent out several emails advising officers on the new laws. He said the agency is planning initiatives for the "very near future."

In Howard County, Police Chief Bill McMahon said in a statement that his department had scheduled details in coming weeks to enforce the cellphone and seat belt laws.

"We have also had commanders attending patrol briefings to answer any questions on the new law and stress its importance," he said. The agency would not offer specifics.

In Carroll County, the sheriff's office issued reminders through the news media in the weeks leading up to the changes regarding the cellphone and seat belt laws, but officials declined Tuesday to discuss any extra enforcement measures.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Luke Lavoie, Jessica Anderson, Justin Fenton and Blair Ames contributed to this article.

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