March 13

AT 55 mph, it takes less than five seconds to drive the length of a football field. That’s also about the amount of time a driver averts his eyes from the road in the course of reading a standard text message. No wonder so much of the carnage on the nation’s roads is the result of drivers distracted by their phones.

States have been grappling with drivers compulsively using their cellphones, and penalties have grown stiffer. Since the fall, Maryland police have been authorized to pull over motorists for speaking on handheld cellphones; texting while driving had already been banned for two years.

Still, penalties for cellphone use at the wheel remain little more than a slap on the wrist, including for drivers so distracted by their devices that they cause fatalities. It may be understandable that lawmakers have been reluctant to impose tough criminal sanctions on so pervasive a practice. But in Maryland, they are reassessing that leniency, and it’s high time.

The reassessment has been impelled by the death of Jake Owen, a 5-year-old boy killed near Baltimore in 2011 when a distracted driver talking on his cellphone plowed into the car in which Jake was riding. The driver, Devin X. McKeiver, was going 62 mph at the time of impact and never used his brakes — even though traffic had stopped about 500 yards ahead of him, allowing him plenty of time to slow down if he’d been watching the road.

Maryland law is reasonably tough on drunken drivers; if Mr. McKeiver had been drinking, it is highly likely he would have gone to prison. In the event, he was found guilty only of negligent driving and failure to control his speed. He was fined $1,000.

A bill in the legislature, known as “Jake’s Law” in the boy’s memory, would impose tougher penalties on drivers responsible for accidents causing death or serious injury while distracted by their handheld phones. The bill, though watered down in the House of Delegates, would establish a category of misdemeanor that would make such offenders eligible for prison terms of up to a year and fines of up to $5,000. That seems a bare minimum for instances in which a distracted driver’s victim is killed or maimed, and it could prove to be a useful deterrent to the use of phones behind the wheel.

More controversially, the measure would empower police by requiring drivers to hand over their cellphone numbers, e-mail accounts and other basic data if officers suspect that the distraction caused by a device contributed to an accident. The legislation would require police to base their request on “reasonable grounds” for suspicion, the same standard used to ask drivers to undergo a Breathalyzer test.

Maryland’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, concerned that police could exploit cellphone data in search of crimes unrelated to an accident, opposes the bill. In fact, the legislative language can be easily tweaked to limit the phone information available to police to that pertaining to an accident under investigation. The important thing is to get the word out to drivers that road safety is paramount and that those who cannot resist a cellphone’s distractions behind the wheel will pay the price for the damage they cause.