- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill Thursday that strengthens the state’s texting-while-driving ban by closing a loophole that allowed drivers to text at stoplights and read messages while driving.

The bill was passed this session by the General Assembly and was one of more than 200 new laws approved Thursday by the Democratic governor. It prohibits reading text messages - a restriction absent from the current law that bans typing and sending - and expands the ban to include emails and other electronic messages.

Maryland is one of 32 states, along with the District, that outlaw texting while driving. The new law will go into effect Oct. 1.

“It just takes the guessing work away from police officers,” said Sen. James Brochin, Baltimore County Democrat and bill sponsor. “And it’s a clear message to kids who are taking driver’s ed, that they can’t text.”

The previous texting law, passed in 2009, does not outlaw reading text messages because many legislators argued at the time that reading a text was no more distracting than such legal driving activities as reading a map, newspaper or novel. The previous law also was limited to moving vehicles.

Legislators sought to expand the law this session, arguing it would improve public safety. Talking or texting while driving is a factor in 1.3 million crashes each year in the U.S., according to the National Safety Council.

Maryland police wrote 208 texting-while-driving citations in the law’s first year, Mr. Brochin said.

Texting while driving is a misdemeanor in the state, punishable by a maximum $500 fine and one-point penalty on the offender’s driving record. It is a primary offense, meaning police can pull over violators without first observing an additional offense such as speeding or reckless driving.

Handheld phone use while driving - banned last year in the state - is a secondary offense, meaning another offense must be observed.

This year’s texting bill easily passed both chambers with a 35-to-11 vote in the Senate and a 114-to-24 vote in the House, but received opposition from some Republicans who accused legislators of overreaching in their control over motorists.

“This is a nanny-state bill. This is an infringement on your liberties,” Delegate Michael Smigiel Sr., Cecil Republican, said during the legislative session. “The bill itself never should have been passed, and trying to fix it this way just makes it worse.”

Opponents also said the law would be difficult to enforce because it does not explicitly ban other phone uses such as listening to music, playing games or surfing the Internet.

The new law also does not apply to use of GPS devices or texts to emergency personnel.

Mr. Brochin acknowledged that some possible loopholes remain, but that the new law’s safety benefits easily outweigh any shortcomings.

“While you’re driving, you should be looking at the road,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

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