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Driving with hand-held phones is illegal in Maryland starting today

The ban on using handheld phones behind the wheel goes into effect Friday, but it will still be legal to make a call using a hands-free device (and scarf down a cheeseburger, apply lipstick, search for a dropped item, and yell at your children) while driving.

"Motorists are operating faster than ever, and I'm not talking about speeding — I'm talking about multitasking" said Terrence Sheridan, superintendant of the Maryland State Police.

Sheridan said the ban is a step toward improving safety but conceded that enforcing it will be a problem.

The law, signed this spring, is a secondary offense, meaning that a driver can be cited only if already stopped for another traffic infraction, like running a stop sign or having a broken tail light.

But if pulled over for a traffic violation, chances are the driver will have the good sense to hang up.

"The main incentive is it might be a lifesaver," Sheridan said, when asked why drivers should comply with the ban. "People who don't change their behavior will be cited because they're more likely to have a traffic violation for being distracted."

The fine for the first violation of the ban is $40, and each subsequent citation is $100. However, on the first offense, courts can waive tickets if the driver provides proof of purchase of a hands-free device.

The devices, which are sold at most electronics stores, range in price from about $60 to $130 for in-car systems, Best Buy employee Mark Taylor said.

In the past few weeks at the Best Buy in Annapolis, hands-free devices "have been booming in sales," Taylor said. As more people become aware of the new law, the sales will continue, he said.

Leah Creamer, a student at St. John's College, said that while the ban is a good idea because drivers should not be using phones while driving, it can only go so far.

"They're never going to outlaw looking for things in the car or eating," Creamer, 20, said. "Even talking to other people in the car is distracting."

But some, like Louis Diamond of Rockville, do not think the ban is far reaching enough.

"I'm disturbed they restricted giving tickets to after being stopped," Diamond, 71, said. "It's ridiculous. It's either a violation or it's not."

Diamond didn't understand what objection there could be to making handheld phone use a primary offense. He added that the legality of hands-free devices is a bad idea because even that is a "huge distraction."

The cell-phone ban is intended to decrease the annual average of 31,000 car crashes in Maryland, Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, the secretary of the Department of Transportation, said at a news conference this week.

Of the 549 people who died in car crashes last year, "the majority would be alive except for one bad decision they made while driving," Swaim-Staley said.

And since the risk of crashing increases 30 percent when using a phone, the new law is a step toward reaching zero deaths while driving, Swaim-Staley said.

"Now, every driver in Maryland will have to put down the phone and just drive," Swaim-Staley said.

Laws taking effect Friday

Sex offenders: Convicts will see longer mandatory sentences. In some cases the minimum prison sentence will go from five to 15 years.

Gang prosecution: A new measure expands the base of crimes that trigger a 2-year-old anti-gang statute.

Bicycle safety: Drivers must give a 3-foot berth when passing bicyclists.

False health claims act: The state may file civil lawsuits cracking down on Medicaid fraud.

Incarceration representation: For the purposes of legislative redistricting, inmates will be counted at their last known address instead of the city or town in which they are incarcerated.

B-Corp: Creates a new business entity intended to give boards of directors legal protections for making socially conscious business decisions.

Dirt bikes: Gas station operators may no longer sell gasoline to fuel dirt bikes.

Child support guidelines: The first major revision to child support rates in two decades will mean most noncustodial parents will pay more, though the new schedule does not affect existing agreements.

Marriage fee: The cost of obtaining a marriage certificate from a Baltimore court increases from $25 to $75 marriage. Additional revenue is to be used for programs to combat domestic violence.

Alternative energy: Drivers of electric cars may use the state's network of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes even if they have no passengers.

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