- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

Maryland drivers would be well-advised to keep their thumbs on the wheel.

Starting Thursday, when a new law takes effect, Maryland will join 18 other states and the District in banning drivers from sending text messages.

The law is intended to stop the practice, which is coming under increasing criticism for distracting drivers and contributing to accidents. Under the law, texting will be considered a primary offense - meaning a police officer can stop a vehicle solely because an officer suspects the driver is sending text messages.

The law carries a maximum fine of $500 - an amount that raised concern among lawmakers when the bill was debated this spring in Annapolis.

“My intention was to try to save lives and not to fine people,” said state Sen. Norman R. Stone, Baltimore County Democrat, who introduced the measure.

The senator said he introduced the bill after he and his wife were traveling in a car that was struck by a driver who went through a stoplight. The driver told him it was because she had been text-messaging.

“She said when she looked up, it was too late,” he said.

Critics said the texting bill, which passed the General Assembly and was signed into law in April, carried too large a fine, and they expressed concerns about how the law would be enforced.

“I think it is intrusive. I think it will broadly interfere with people’s rights. It is unenforceable. There are already laws on the books that say that you must keep your car under control - this is just another intrusive law,” said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican. “Every day, millions of text messages are sent, and this law isn’t going to change that at all.”

The dangers of texting and using a cell phone while behind the steering wheel are in the national spotlight this week, as the Obama administration Wednesday convened a two-day summit of government officials, policy specialists and relatives of victims of “distracted driving” to discuss the issue.

“To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the gathering. “Distracted driving is an epidemic, and it seems to be getting worse every year.”

Mr. LaHood said he planned to offer recommendations on policy and legislative changes Thursday, including new restrictions on the use by drivers of cell phones, BlackBerrys and other hand-held devices. According to government figures, nearly 6,000 Americans were killed and about 515,000 injured in crashes involving some form of “driver distraction.” The toll was particularly heavy among younger drivers.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, led by Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, are considering legislation that would withhold a portion of a state’s federal highway funds if it fails to adopt a ban on texting or sending e-mail while driving.

A recent study released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute said reaction times for people who are texting are slower than those of intoxicated motorists.

AAA Mid-Atlantic and Transurban released a report Monday that surveyed local motorists on their texting habits and found that one in four drivers on the Beltway are sending or receiving text messages at any given time.

Half of those who admitted to writing texts reported having an incident or near-miss, while 39 percent of those who said they read text messages while driving reported a traffic incident or near-miss.

The report was based on a survey of 1,047 drivers who travel the Virginia side of the Beltway.

In Virginia, sending or reading text messages while driving is illegal, and school-bus drivers and motorists under the age of 18 are prohibited from cell phone use. Text-messaging is also illegal in the District under a broad distracted-driving law that also requires motorists with cell phones to use hands-free devices while driving.

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