New law cracks down on cellphone chatting while driving

It won't matter if you're obeying every other traffic law: Starting Tuesday, if you're talking on a hand-held mobile phone while driving in Maryland, the police will have the right to pull you over and ticket you.

The new law tightening the state's curb on cellphone use behind the wheel is one of hundreds that will take effect Tuesday as a result of General Assembly action this year. Among the others are high-profile measures banning the sale of some types of guns and repealing the death penalty.

Concerned about crashes caused by distracted drivers, lawmakers passed a hand-held cell phone ban in 2010 but made it a "secondary" offense, meaning an officer couldn't stop the vehicle without witnessing some other violation. This year proponents argued drivers had been given adequate notice. They persuaded the legislature to put more teeth in the law, making it a "primary" violation.

"It's really vital that the law is primary because drivers are very reluctant to put the phones down unless they think they're going to get a ticket," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

John Wynn, 56, of Lutherville, a candy broker who drives some 40,000 miles a year, said he agrees with the intent of the law. He and his wife have been rear-ended in crashes caused by people who admitted to being on their phones.

"I do know that people get distracted. They can't multi-task, shifting gears, steering, on the phone watching the kids in the car," he said.

But Wynn wonders how enforceable the law — which also raises the fine for a violation from $40 to $75 — will be.

"They weren't able to enforce the secondary violations," Wynn said. "I'm just wondering if they are going to do something either at toll booths or on the side of the road and start nailing people with phones up to their ears."

Other new laws range from matters as narrow as the salaries of Orphans Court judges in Howard County to those as sweeping as life and death, as in the law abolishing capital punishment in Maryland.

Easily the most controversial legislation taking effect Tuesday — as measured by the outpouring of demonstrators in Annapolis – is the sweeping gun control bill passed in the wake of the mass killing last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The law bans the sale of 45 types of long guns classified as assault rifles, along with handguns whose magazines accept more than 10 rounds. The law also requires licensing and fingerprinting of handgun buyers, and training for new handgun owners. It also bars gun ownership for more people with mental illnesses.

The measure set off a flurry of gun buying to beat the Oct. 1 deadline, resulting in a backlog in completing the background checks. State police announced they would waive the handgun license requirement for buyers who apply before Tuesday. The law faces a court challenge filed last week by gun rights advocates.

Another new law that stoked passions this year was the elimination of the death penalty. After many years of trying, opponents of capital punishment prevailed, with the help of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the NAACP, making Maryland the 18th state to end executions.

In addition to the stiffer cell phone law, drivers will now face a requirement that all passengers — even adults in back seats — wear seat belts.

John T. Kuo, head of the Motor Vehicle Administration, said while Maryland has a relatively high 91.1 percent seat belt compliance rate, it's important to reach that remaining 8.9 percent.

"In a crash, that back seat passenger, if you're unrestrained, becomes a projectile to the front seat passenger," he said.

The back seat provision will be a secondary offense, but the law also will double the maximum fine for violating the seat belt law from $25 to $50 and allow judges to impose court costs.

Montgomery County Police Capt. Thomas Didone, whose 15-year-old son was killed in a 2008 crash while riding in the back seat without a belt, said the new law could cost drivers $83 for every person in the vehicle who is unrestrained.

Didone said the new law also requires there be a seat belt or child safety seat for every person in a car. He said that could discourage teenagers from driving around in what police call "clown cars" — with more people packed into a car than it is designed to carry.

Another measure taking effect attempts to address the problem of "cyber-bullying" of minors by peers or adults over the Internet using social media. The legislation is known as "Grace's Law" after 15-year-old Grace McComas, a Howard County teen who committed suicide after repeated online harassment. The law makes bullying someone under 18 using a computer or smart phone a misdemeanor.