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Md. Is Latest State to Target Text Messaging by Drivers

Senate Passes Ban, Following Va. and D.C.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009; Page A01

The Maryland Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to prohibit text messaging while driving, making it likely that the state will soon join the District, Virginia and a growing number of other jurisdictions that have banned a distraction most common among younger motorists.

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The bill is the latest to take aim at what has become an increasingly popular but dangerous practice of shooting off short messages from cellphones and other electronic devices while behind the wheel. As the habit has grown more pervasive, particularly among the region's less-experienced drivers, so too have the concerns of parents.

A study last year by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that about half of drivers ages 18 to 24 said they texted behind the wheel at least occasionally. Fewer than 5 percent of drivers 45 and older did.

Testimony heard by lawmakers this year included that of a Maryland couple whose 26-year-old daughter was killed by a tractor-trailer driver distracted by texting near Disney World in Florida as they were about to meet to plan her wedding last year.

The bill, approved 43 to 4 by the Senate, would make it a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500, for anyone to write, send or read a text message while operating a vehicle. The legislation moves to the House of Delegates, where a key member predicted passage of a similar, if not identical, bill within days.

"There is no equivalent to texting," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), who is chairman of the House committee that will consider the issue. "You absolutely must take your eyes off the road and your hand off the wheel, if not both hands, to do it. It absolutely is an action that should not take place in the car while it is moving."

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said that he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Virginia lawmakers passed a ban on texting while driving late in their session, which ended last month. The legislation, which Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is expected to sign, makes the practice a secondary offense, meaning a police officer can issue a citation only after pulling a motorist over for another offense. It would take effect July 1.

Eight other states and the District have also passed texting while driving prohibitions.

Legislation in Maryland and Virginia continues to permit talking on cellphones while operating a car, prompting some lawmakers to question how easy a texting ban will be to enforce. The District has required hands-free devices for cellphones since 2004. That legislation included a texting ban.

As the popularity of texting has exploded in recent years, particularly among teenagers, state legislators have been more inclined to target the practice than the use of cellphones. Some safety advocates say that is partly because lawmakers are less likely to have picked up the practice.

"It's an easier thing to do because it's something younger drivers have a tendency to do," said John B. Townsend II, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "That's the psychology."

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