- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ANNAPOLIS, MD. (AP) - Too many Maryland drivers are still talking on handheld cell phones because a ban on using them while driving can only be enforced if they commit another violation, a lawmaker who supports a stronger law said Tuesday.

Delegate James Malone, D-Baltimore County, is sponsoring legislation that would make the ban a primary offense, instead of a secondary offense. That means a police officer could pull someone over after observing a driver talking on a handheld cell phone. Under current law, police can only issue a citation for talking on a cell phone while driving after another violation is observed.

“As more and more people were finding out that it was a secondary offense, and what a secondary offense meant, more and more people started using the phone again,” Malone said Tuesday before a bill hearing on the legislation. “I just think this is something we truly need to do.”

Maryland became the eighth state to ban drivers from talking on a handheld cell phone in October. Offenders can be fined $40 for first violations and $100 for subsequent ones. Drivers can use handsfree cell phone devices to talk on phones while driving.

Maryland banned drivers from sending text messages in 2009, but drivers can still read text messages.

Malone and other lawmakers trying to strengthen that law as well. Malone is sponsoring separate legislation to ban the reading of text messages while behind the wheel. Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, also is sponsoring a bill in the Senate to ban the reading of text messages while driving.

“It’s distracting. Period,” Brochin said. “We need to finish what we started here.”

The National Safety Council, an organization that focuses on workplace and highway safety, estimates that talking or texting on a cell phone is responsible for 1.6 million crashes in the United States a year, about 28 percent of all crashes.

More than 380 people have died from distracted driving crashes in Maryland in the last five years, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.

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