New traffic laws taking effect in Md., D.C

Police in Maryland will be allowed to pull over and ticket people they see text messaging when legislation that closes a loophole in an existing law takes effect Saturday.

Two other new laws — one regarding drunken driving and the other fatal accidents — are also intended to strengthen traffic enforcement.

Sending and reading text messages behind the wheel has been illegal in Maryland for more than a year, but under the existing law, it was a secondary offense. That meant police had to find another reason to pull a driver over in order to issue a texting citation.

The state legislature changed texting to a primary offense this year. Drivers who are using the Global Positioning System function in their mobile devices or who are sending a text message to the emergency 911 system are exempted from prosecution.

Under the new law, those caught texting can be fined $70 and receive one point toward suspension of a driver’s license. But if the action is judged to have caused an accident, the fine increases to $110 and the number of points to three.

Sending and reading text messages while driving is a primary offense in the District and a secondary office in Virginia. It is a primary offense in 30 other states and a secondary offense in Iowa and Nebraska.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 20 percent of crashes that resulted in injury in 2009 involved distracted driving. NHTSA said 995 fatal crashes that year involved cellphone distraction. Sixteen percent of all drivers younger than 20 who were involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted.

Another new Maryland traffic law is intended to allow criminal prosecution of drivers whose negligence results in the death of bicyclists, pedestrians and others.

“Before this law was passed, many drivers who killed with a motor vehicle often only faced fines and many were not even required to appear in court,” said Marlon G. “Lon” Anderson of the American Automobile Association.

Under the new law, it is “a misdemeanor for a person to cause the death of another as a result of the person’s driving, operating or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a criminally negligent manner.”

A third change in state law requires the use of ignition interlock devices — which connect the ignition system to a breath analyzer — by repeat offenders and some other motorists convicted of drunken driving.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the AAA lobbied without success for legislation mandating use of the devices by all convicted drunk drivers. But legislation enacted this year did make interlocks mandatory not only for repeat offenders but also for drivers younger than 21 who have a blood alcohol level of 0.02 or more and any driver convicted with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or more.

Virginia has a similar law requiring that repeat offenders and those with blood alcohol levels of at least 0.15 use interlocks. In the District, ordering the use of one is at the discretion of a judge.

D.C. drivers will also have to deal with some changes beginning Saturday. Some Department of Motor Vehicle fees are increasing. The increases are:

●Duplicate driver’s licenses and duplicate learner’s permits, $7 to $20.

●Temporary driver’s licenses and identification cards, $7 to $20.

●Change of address, $7 to $20.

●Duplicate registration cards, $7 to $20.

●Residential parking permits, $15 to $25 for people over 65 ; $15 to $35 for all other registered drivers.

Staff writer Mark Berman contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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