Across Maryland, the problem of distracted driving has continued to grow. Lawmakers are looking to pass a law raising penalties for text messaging while driving to $500. The House of Delegates passed the bill recently; however, early indications show it may be difficult for it to pass through the Senate. Similar legislation has previously failed to pass in the state during 2016 and 2017.
House Minority Whip, Kathy Szeliga, feels the fine is excessive and may lead to larger legal problems for those unable to pay the fine. Proponents say that the existing laws are simply insufficient to function as a deterrent. Currently, a first offense fine is $75, $125 for a second, and $175 for a third.
Other states have been more aggressive in going after distracted drivers. In Alaska, first-time offenders used to face up to a $10,000 penalty and one-year in jail but recently reduced the penalties to a fine of $500 instead. In Louisiana, a first-offense carries a $500 fine and a second-time offender may face a $1,000 penalty. In Maine, the fines are currently $250 for a first and $500 for a second offense.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, feels higher fines do not necessarily translate to increased roadway safety. He feels the key is that law enforcement must actually enforce the laws relating to distracted driving.
In Maryland, this new fine would pertain to texting or other “unauthorized use of a handheld device”. If the bill does pass the Senate, Governor Larry Hogan may be able to veto the measure. A spokesman for Hogan’s office says they are monitoring the progress of the bill. In 2015, an estimated 3,477 people were killed due to distracted driving, and 391,000 injuries also were caused. Maryland’s law enforcement issued approximately 31,286 citations for mobile device usage in 2017. The bill does state that drivers would still be permitted to use phones for GPS navigation and in emergencies.
In 2014, “Jake’s Law” was enacted, which was named after Jake Owens, a 5-year-old who was killed by a distracted driver. The driver was talking on a cell phone at the time and rear-ended the family’s vehicle at over 60 miles per hour. Although the driver initially faced some significant charges, the family was disappointed in the outcome of the case. He was found not guilty of criminally negligent manslaughter and reckless driving and instead faced minor traffic violations.
Maryland has enhanced laws relating to mobile device usage for younger drivers. Those under 18 are not permitted to use wireless devices in any way while driving. Those under 18 also may face license suspensions for periods up to 90 days. Drivers of all ages are prohibited from using devices to “write, send, or read” a text or other electronic messaging while driving. Violators also may be issued one point on their driver’s license for these infractions, or three points if an accident is caused. An exception does exist for calling 9-1-1.
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