(Pat Wellenbach/AP )
(Pat Wellenbach/AP )

Maryland police will be able to pull over and ticket drivers who have a cell phone in hand or to their ear starting Oct. 1 when a tougher new law against distracted driving takes force.

Hand-held cell phone use has been against the law in Maryland for a while, but that has been widely ignored, and police had to have some other reason to pull over a driver before they could issue a distracted driving ticket, which carries a $75 fine for first time offenders.  No points will be assessed to a motorist’s license for a cell-phone-holding violation unless the violation contributes to a crash.

Changing the ability to ticket cell phone holders was one of several revised or new traffic laws passed by the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year.

“We are pleased that the Maryland General Assembly recognized the importance of strengthening the hand-held cell phone ban, as it will now serve as a real deterrent to motorists and enable police to better enforce the existing law,” said Lon Anderson of AAA. “To modify and to change bad driving behavior, and that includes distracted driving and texting while driving, you need tough laws and tough enforcement.”

Twelve states and the District ban use of hand-held phones while driving. The District of Columbia ticketed nearly 63,000 drivers for distracted driving between 2007 and 2011, police said. In Virginia, hand-held text messaging is a primary offense, but hand-held cell phone use is permitted.

In Virginia, the fine is $20 for the first offense. Fairfax County, which boasts 1.1 million people, handed down nearly 6,900 distracted driving tickets in 2010-2011, compared to 4,670 such tickets in 2009-2010.

Based on preliminary Maryland motor vehicle crash data for 2012, approximately 58 percent (52,136) of the 89,655 total vehicle crashes involved a distracted driver, according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration’s Highway Safety Office. Nearly half (246) of the estimated 511 total fatalities on Maryland’s roads in 2012 were due to a distracted driver. Approximately 64 percent (28,515) of the estimated 44,027 injuries statewide were the result of crashes involving a distracted driver.

Maryland lawmakers also strengthened seat belt and child safety laws. All passengers 16 years and older sitting in the rear seat of a vehicle are now required to wear a seat belt. That new law, which carries a $50 fine, is a secondary offense, which means a police officer must pull over a driver for another offense. Children under 16 already were required to wear a seat belt in the rear seat.

“Unbelted back seat passengers are just as vulnerable to injuries or even death in a crash as those in the front seat,” said Anderson. “Wearing a seat belt is your best defense against injury or death in the event of a crash.”