A Maryland law that prohibits motorists from talking on hand-held cellphones while driving went into effect more than a year ago, but that hasn't stopped people from chatting behind the wheel.
Local law-enforcement officials said one reason people aren't obeying the law that went into effect Oct. 1, 2010, is that the violation is a secondary offense. That means police can't pull over a driver for talking on a cellphone unless they see him or her violating another law, such as speeding or reckless driving.
Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore said he believed a lot of motorists don't respect the law because they know it doesn't have any teeth. He suggested that people might pay more attention to the law if the violation were made a primary offense, which would mean officers could pull drivers over for that offense alone.
"Of all the drivers out there, I would say that at least 40 percent of the people use their cellphone," Mullendore said. "A lot of traffic accidents and a lot of traffic violations are caused by people using their cellphones."
Motorists also use their cellphones to send text messages while they're driving, which is a primary offense.
Mullendore said in the two years since the ban on texting went into effect on Oct. 1, 2009, the sheriff's office has issued only one ticket — a citation that Mullendore wrote after he pulled over a woman in the West End of Hagerstown. The sheriff's office has issued 39 citations to people talking on their cellphones after they were pulled over for something else, he said.
Maryland State Police from the Hagerstown barrack have issued 10 texting citations and 11 warnings for texting, 1st Sgt. Kevin Lewis said in an email. Troopers also wrote 74 citations and gave 87 warnings for cellphone use.
In the City of Hagerstown, Police Chief Arthur Smith said his officers have written two citations for cellphone use and no citations for texting in the last year.
Smith said he believes that it's a better use of officers' time to focus on stopping drunken drivers and patrolling school zones than to be pulling over cellphone users.
He said an officer who wrote a ticket for a cellphone violation would spend about two hours in traffic court. That time, Smith said, would be spent more prudently by having the officer on the street.
"We're not going to redirect our traffic enforcement for this new law," Smith said. "It's a question of using your resources. Is the offense hazardous enough to take the officer off the street? That's why we give a lot of warnings instead."
Mullendore said he believed that pulling over a driver for cellphone use takes up far fewer resources than having to send emergency personnel to an accident caused by an inattentive motorist.
Inattention, he said, is caused not only by cellphone use, but by motorists eating, getting dressed and applying makeup while driving.
The fine for talking on a handheld cell phone behind the wheel is $40 for the first offense and $100 for the second offense, said Buel Young, spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
The fine for texting is $70, Young said.
There is no law that prohibits motorists from talking on a hands-free device.
Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said that while he supports less government, it might be necessary to increase the penalties to get the public's attention.
"We'd like you to understand, but sometimes it takes a slap with a stick to get you to respond," he said.
Serafini, who served on the committee that initiated the debate in Annapolis, said it "was quite a battle" to get a cellphone law passed.
Some lawmakers wanted to make talking on a cellphone while driving a primary offense, he said, but delegates from urban districts argued the law would give police an excuse to pull over minorities to search for unrelated criminal activity.
Those lawmakers won in the end, Serafini said, and the cellphone law was enacted as a secondary offense.
Passing a law doesn't mean people will obey it, said state Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.
"You can't legislate common sense," Shank said. "It's a matter of personal responsibility."
Shank said he believes a change in attitude is needed among motorists to get people to realize that distractions such as talking on a cellphone and texting can have serious consequences.
According to a AAA survey that was conducted earlier this year, 88 percent of drivers who responded said talking on a phone is a threat to safety, yet two-thirds admitted to having talked on a cellphone while driving in the past 30 days. The findings also showed that peoples' concern about texting or emailing while driving was on par with drinking while driving.
Additionally, 87 percent of drivers surveyed expressed support for having a law against reading, typing or sending a text message or email while driving, and 50 percent of drivers supported having a law against the use of any type of cell.
The AAA Foundation study came out just as Maryland's texting-while-driving ban became more strict.
The original texting law that became effective in 2009 prohibited drivers from sending text messages, but allowed drivers to read them in stopped traffic. That provision was repealed during the legislative session this year. In addition, the General Assembly voted to make it illegal to engage in any form of texting unless the driver was off the travel portion of the roadway.
Those changes took effect on Oct. 1 of this year.
'They're still doing it'
Shank said he supported making texting a primary offense because people who do it have to take their eyes off the road. At the same time, Shank said, he respected the opinions of others who believed the law would give police another reason to pull people over.
To Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, talking on a cellphone with a Bluetooth is just as dangerous as talking with a hand-held device.
"It's still a distraction," he said.
Myers said that from what he has heard, the new laws have decreased the use of hand-held devices on Maryland's roadways.
But he still sees drivers talking on cellphones.
"Not too long ago, I saw a woman eating and talking at the same time," he said. "They're still doing it, but the law has reduced it a bit."