Drivers Who Use Handheld Cell Phones Could Face Stiffer Penalties

FREDERICK, MD - People who talk on a handheld cell phone while driving could soon face stiffer penalties in Maryland.

Talking on a handheld cell phone in Maryland is illegal, but that hasn't stopped many drivers from doing it.

"It's irresponsible to drive a car 65, 70, 80 miles per hour while you're talking on a telephone," says Del. Galen Clagett, (D) - Frederick County.

That prompted Clagett to sponsor a bill in the Maryland General Assembly making it a primary offense to talk on a handheld cell phone while driving.

Currently, it's a secondary offense, so drivers must do something else illegal, such as speeding, for police to pull them over.

"Over the past several years, we've seen an increase in crashes involving individuals who were distracted while driving, and that distraction has been dealing with other passengers in the car, but increasingly we're seeing drivers on a cell phone without a hands-free device as being a part of that cause," says Lt. Clark Pennington, spokesman with the Frederick City Police Department.

Talking on a handheld cell phone while driving is illegal in 10 states. It's a secondary offense not only in Maryland but also in West Virginia.

"When someone is driving 85 miles per hour talking on a phone or driving 40 miles per hour trying to manipulate a telephone in a 65 mile zone, I think it's important to eliminate that possibility or that problem," Clagett says.

A University of Utah study shows drivers who talk on a cell phone are just as impaired as drunk drivers. Police say changing the law could help them make the roads safer.

"Just talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device becomes a primary offense, which would help us in enforcing that law, hopefully reducing the number of crashes, and ultimately saving lives," Pennington says.

Clagett sponsored a similar bill last year, but it didn't pass. He believes he has enough votes this year for the measure to get the green light.

The bill is expected to include points on a driver's record and increased penalties.

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