Maryland lawmakers vote to increase penalties for drivers using cellphones


Susan Yum of Baltimore holds photos of her son Jake Owen at her home on March 6. Jake Owen was 5 when a driver who was texting hit their car without ever hitting the brakes, killing Jake. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Maryland General Assembly approved legislation Monday that will stiffen penalties for drivers who cause fatal or serious crashes while talking on a cellphone or texting. The legislation now goes to the governor to be signed.

The Maryland House of Delegates and Senate had passed different versions of the legislation, but in a compromise reached on the last day of the session, lawmakers agreed to these conditions: The law would apply to drivers using a cellphone in a variety of ways, not just texting. Those found guilty would face up to one year in jail and a fine of as much as $5,000. And prosecutors could charge drivers with this law in addition to other laws.

A provision was removed from the bill that would have allowed police to collect information about a cellphone, such as its number and carrier, from drivers suspected of killing or seriously injuring another while distracted by a cellphone. Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore), who sponsored the legislation, said that police and prosecutors have other ways of obtaining that information.

The legislation has been named “Jake’s Law,” in memory of Jake Owen, a 5-year-old from Baltimore who was killed in a 2011 crash caused by a driver who was talking on his cellphone.

Jake’s parents and older sister were in Annapolis for the vote Monday evening.

Susan Yum, Jake’s mother, said that she hopes the legislation will raise awareness of the dangers of using a cellphone while driving and motivate drivers to not do “anything that causes you to take your eyes off the road or hands off the wheel, even for a second.”

“Nothing can bring Jake back,” Yum said, standing between the two chambers following the votes, “but we can make sure that other families do not have to go through what we have gone through.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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