Va., Md. Start to Implement Several New Laws Today

By Anita Kumar and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Virginia drivers will face new restrictions today, when hundreds of laws take effect, including a ban on sending or reading text messages and e-mails.

A dozen states and the District ban motorists from texting while they drive. Virginia's ban begins today, and Maryland's takes effect Oct. 1.

"It is such a dangerous practice that there ought to be a message: no way, no how, no time," AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said. "The bottom line is it's going to be illegal in every jurisdiction in the Washington metro area in a fairly short period of time. You shouldn't be doing it anyway, but now the message is that you might get a traffic fine as well."

In Virginia, drivers can be cited only after being stopped by police for another reason, such as running a red light. It carries a $20 fine for the first offense and a $50 penalty for subsequent violations. In Maryland, drivers will face a fine of as much as $500 if caught writing, sending or reading a text message while operating a vehicle.

Also in Maryland, SWAT teams will be subject to new scrutiny starting today, a response from the legislature to a botched police raid in Prince George's County in which two dogs were shot to death. The SWAT law will require every police department that operates such teams to submit a monthly public report on its activities, including where and when the team was deployed and whether an operation resulted in arrests, evidence seizures or injuries.

Another new Maryland law gives domestic partners, including same-sex couples, the same exemption from state inheritance taxes on their primary residence that is provided to spouses, children and other relatives.

And a new law should help reduce textbook costs at universities and community colleges by fostering competition with campus bookstores: Institutions must share information with students and competing bookstores about required course materials so students can look for better deals on books at other stores and on Web sites.

Some of the most far-reaching laws approved in Maryland this year do not take effect until Oct. 1. In addition to the ban on text-messaging by drivers, they include new restrictions on teen drivers; authority for local governments to use cameras to catch speeding drivers in school zones and highway work areas; and measures that give judges more authority to take firearms from people accused of domestic violence.

New Virginia laws allow courts to suspend the driving privileges of minors with 10 or more consecutive unexcused absences from school; bar driving certain mopeds, motorized scooters, electric-powered bicycles and wheelchairs on highways; and toughen drunken driving penalties.

People twice convicted of drunken driving within 10 years will be required to use an ignition interlock device to prevent a car from starting if alcohol is detected on the driver's breath. Those who are caught driving without the device might receive a year in jail and might have their driver's license revoked.

"These are potentially lifesaving new laws," said Kurt Gregory Erickson, president of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

The Virginia General Assembly enacted 879 laws -- most of which take effect today -- in its 45-day session. The biggest change -- a ban on smoking in most restaurants and bars in the state -- will not take effect until Dec. 1.

Other new laws ban the sale of novelty lighters to customers younger than 18, charge a 10 percent fee on pay-per-view movies purchased in hotel rooms and allow voters to wear political stickers, buttons and clothing to the polls. Those applying for a concealed-weapons permit can complete the required firearms training online or by video.

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Rick Rojas contributed to this report.

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