Maryland legislators are looking to close gaping loopholes and ease enforcement of laws prohibiting cell phone use behind the wheel.
Bills heard Tuesday in House and Senate committees would amend laws that took effect in October. Those laws banned hand-held cell phone use while the vehicle is in motion. Under the new rules, cell phone use would be illegal any time the car is in the travel portion of the road, including when stopped at a stop light or in traffic.
One bill, sponsored by Del. James Malone Jr., (D-Baltimore County), would make cell-phone use without a hands-free headset a primary offense, which means law enforcement could pull drivers over when they are observed using a handheld device.
As the law is now, drivers have to commit another violation, like speeding or running a stop sign, while talking on a cell phone to be given a ticket for the secondary offense.
"If you look at what is happening, people were finding out that the cell phone ban was a secondary offense," Malone said. "Then they were finding out that they had to be doing something else wrong to get a ticket for using their cell phones. And people started using their cell phones again."
The bill is supported by the Department of Transportation, AAA, insurance companies and law enforcement.
"This gives a tool to the police," Malone said. "Once it's a primary offense, they can enforce it more effectively."
Another bill, also sponsored by Malone, would clarify that the law prohibiting texting while driving applies to drivers under the age of 18.
Legislation would also broaden the prohibition to apply to electronic messages such as emails sent while driving. Reading electronic messages of any kind would also be illegal.
Lawmakers last year did not take into account devices with e-mail capabilities, and only specifically prohibited text messaging.
Based on the new laws the only time drivers could legally touch their phones is when initiating or ending a phone call conducted through a hands-free headset, legislators said.
Seven other states and Washington, D.C. prohibit cell phone use. Cell phone use by young drivers is prohibited in 28 states and the District.
After the recent flurry of legislative activity on the issue nationwide, studies have offered conflicting stories of how text and cell-phone bans are affecting safety on the road.
While studies by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the University of North Texas Health Science Center have shown how dangerous texting and talking while driving can be, the Highway Loss Data Institute found that in three-out-of-four states studied accident rates due to texting stayed constant or even increased slightly following bans.
If passed, the legislation would take effect in October.