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Maryland lawmakers again debate $500 fine for texting, driving

Maryland lawmakers again debate $500 fine for texting, driving

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The Maryland State House. (File)
The Maryland State House. (File)

Frustrated that drivers continue to use mobile phones on the road despite existing penalties, Maryland lawmakers are weighing whether to increase the maximum fine for texting and driving to $500 – one of the highest penalties in the country.

The legislation, which passed the House of Delegates last week for the third consecutive year, failed in the Senate in 2016 and 2017. It will be the focus of a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which last year gave it an unfavorable report.

Opponents, including House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, say a $500 penalty is simply too costly for many Marylanders and can lead to a variety of legal problems for those who incur it and cannot pay.

But proponents note that judges would have wide latitude in whether to assess the maximum fine, and they say Maryland’s current tiered system – which sets maximum fines for using handheld mobile phones at $75 for the first offense, $125 for the second offense and $175 for subsequent offenses – is not an effective deterrent.

“People are paying these fines, and they keep using their cellphones,” said Del. Frank Turner, the bill’s sponsor. “I see people driving all the time with a phone in their hand. It just seems out of control.”

Lawmakers in Alaska – which for years could slap first-time offenders with a $10,000 penalty and up to one year in jail – last year lowered the fine for texting while driving to $500. Drivers in Louisiana pay up to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second offense. In Maine, first-time offenders receive a minimum fine of $250, and repeat offenders have their licenses suspended and pay at least $500.

But increased fines do not necessarily mean increased safety, said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Administration. He argued that what really causes drivers to change their behavior is when police enforce whichever driving laws are on the books.

“If fines are really high, law enforcement might be hesitant to enforce the law or more likely to give a warning,” Adkins said. “It’s a complicated issue. But it’s exciting to see a legislature prioritizing safety.”

Nationally, the average penalty for a first offense for texting while driving is approximately $110, said Lee Howell, manager of AAA state relations, who added that penalties “vary wildly by state.”

In California, the penalty for a first offense is $20. Arizona and Montana are the only states in which texting and driving is legal for all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Missouri, texting is illegal for drivers under the age of 21.

“Of course texting while driving is a terrible idea . . . but I thought the current law was adequate,” said Szeliga, who voted against the bill when it passed the House. “Five hundred dollars for the first offense is very high.”

Maurice Miller, a prep cook at an Annapolis restaurant, said that although he thinks drivers who text should pay a price, $500 “sounds steep.”

“It’s dangerous,” said Miller, 56, who said he never texts or talks on the phone while he drives. “But that is a lot of money. Maybe they should start with a $100 penalty.”

Turner said he recognizes that many lawmakers are concerned about the financial burden a $500 fine would be for drivers. The fine would apply to texting or other unauthorized use of a handheld mobile device.

“But I tell them it’s going to cost them a lot more than $500 if they hurt someone else or themselves because they were texting,” he said.

The bill passed the House somewhat narrowly – 77-to-59 – making it vulnerable to a veto from Gov. Larry Hogan, R, if it passes the Senate. Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor’s office will closely monitor the bill as it advances.

“We understand that this is an issue many people are concerned about – and rightly so,” Chasse said.

Distracted driving caused the deaths of 3,477 people in 2015 – nine people per day – and an estimated 391,000 injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Maryland, 31,286 citations were issued to adults who used a cellphone while driving in fiscal year 2017.

The Department of Legislative Services found that increasing the maximum fine would not likely impact state finances.

Drivers would be able to use their cellphones for GPS and in emergency situations, the bill stipulates. Law enforcement officials and emergency personnel are exempted if they are using their phones to carry out official duties.

In 2014, the Maryland legislature passed a statute known as “Jake’s Law” that increased the penalties for drivers whose use of a cellphone causes a crash that results in serious injury or death.

Drivers responsible for such crashes can be sentenced to up to one year in jail and fined up to $5,000. The law is named for Jake Owen, a 5-year-old from Baltimore who was killed by a distracted driver in 2011.

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