Thousands of Maryland Drivers Ticketed for Phone Use

Maryland police agencies have issued thousands of tickets to drivers for using hand-held cellphones behind the wheel in the year since a ban took effect.

Records from more than 70 police agencies in the state that participate in the Electronic Traffic Information Exchange show 4,021 warnings and 5,227 citations have been issued to drivers who failed to use a hands-free device since the ban went into effect in October 2010. More than half of those warnings and citations were issued by state troopers.

Drivers can be fined $40 for their first violations and $100 for subsequent ones. However, it is a secondary offense, meaning drivers can only be pulled over for another offense, such as running a red light.

“I think it is working pretty well,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County. “It has certainly made people more aware of the safety issues involved. However, I still think it would be more effective if it was a primary offense.”

The Maryland Highway Safety Foundation doesn’t have a position on whether the violation should be bumped up to a primary offense, but it is worthy of discussion during the upcoming General Assembly session, foundation lobbyist William Kress said.

“The numbers are pretty astounding considering it’s a secondary offense,” Kress said. “It’s a good start, but probably more needs to be done.”

Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Cecil, opposed the ban on the grounds that it was too invasive.

“I abhor the fact that someone would take their eyes off the road. It’s just wrong. You should pay attention,” he said. “But it doesn’t make it right for the government to come in to dictate what we should do.”

He’s also concerned about unforeseen consequences, such as people holding phones out of sight to avoid being pulled over and distracting themselves more, he said. He’s in favor of education to show people the risks they are taking.

Data show that 587 warnings and 379 citations have been issued for texting while driving since 2009. Writing and sending text messages was already barred, but starting Saturday it will be illegal to read texts behind the wheel, too. The violation will also become a primary offense, meaning officers can stop drivers for violating the ban.

Allowing the hand-held phone violation as a secondary offense is only a prelude to making it a primary offense, Smigiel said.

“Once the government gets in your car or your home, the government intrusion doesn’t stop until the government is completely in your home,” he said.