Md. House passes ‘Jake’s Law,’ targeting drivers on phones who cause serious crashes

Maryland is one step closer to establishing new penalties for cellphone-wielding drivers who are found guilty of contributing to a crash that kills or seriously injures another person.

The Maryland House of Delegates voted 111 to 25 on Friday to approve legislation that would add penalties and require suspected distracted drivers to immediately provide police with information about their cellphones. Similar legislation is pending in the Maryland Senate.

Maryland already forbids the use of hand-held cellphones in nearly all cases while driving. Under the House version of the bill, someone who is found guilty of “substantially” contributing to a crash that results in “death or serious bodily injury of another” while using a cellphone or texting would face up to one year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines. An earlier version of the legislation called for up to three years. These penalties could be applied in addition to other penalties.

Under the legislation, police require a driver to provide his or her cellphone number, the service carrier and any e-mail addresses associated with the device if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the driver was using a phone at the time of impact. That part of the bill has raised concerns from privacy advocates who say it simply makes it easier for authorities to snoop in someone’s personal life.

The legislation is being called “Jake’s Law” in memory of Jake Owen, a 5-year-old who was killed in a December 2011 crash caused by a 23-year-old driver who was talking on his cellphone at the time of impact. The case went to trial, and the driver paid $1,000 in fines.

Jake’s parents — Susan Yum and James “Spike” Owen — sat in the House gallery as delegates voted on the legislation. Soon after the vote, the couple met with Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore), a neighbor who sponsored the legislation and pushed for its passage.

“We were very pleased and relieved to see this happen,” Yum said, “because we think this will have an impact and will save lives.”

Also on Friday, delegates approved legislation targeting people who are caught driving while under the influence of alcohol and transporting a child under the age of 16. If convicted, those drivers would be required to install a ignition interlock system. That vote was 135 to 0. The legislation, which was introduced by Del. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery) now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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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