Distracted drivers using their cellphone or texting when they cause a crash that kills or seriously injures another person face tougher penalties under a bill approved Friday by the Maryland House of Delegates.
The house voted 111 to 25 to approve legislation that would add penalties and require suspected distracted drivers to immediately provide police with information about their cellphones, says The Washington Post. Similar legislation is pending in the Maryland Senate.
Maryland already bans the use of hand-held cellphones in nearly all cases while driving. Under the House version of the bill, someone convicted of substantially contributing to a crash that results in death or serious injury to 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.
A driver talking on his cellphone crashed into a Baltimore family’s car, killing their 5-year-old son. Maryland law only allowed for a $1,000 fine in the case, spurring the legislation known as “Jake’s Law” to increase the penalties faced by distracted drivers.
The bill is named for Jake Owen, a Baltimore native who died when a driver crashed into his family’s car on Dec. 28, 2011. The other driver, a 23-year-old man who was talking on his cellphone, never noticed traffic around him had stopped for a previous accident on Interstate 83.
The driver was charged with negligent driving and failure to control speed to avoid collision—punishable by a total of $1,000 in fines. While he had also been charged with vehicular manslaughter, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine, he was not convicted.
“We think it’s a great start, but I think we still have a lot of work to do,” Jake’s mother, Susan Yum, told the Post when the House bill was sent to the floor. “We’re cautiously hopeful that we’ll get this through.”
Marylanders are no exception. An OpinionWorks poll cited by a non-profit group founded in memory of Jake said that 28 percent of Maryland drivers, or 1.1 million drivers, texted while driving within the past six months.
“Handheld cellphone use while driving is the new drunk driving,” said Yum. “Yet society seems to find this behavior somewhat acceptable.”
The same poll showed that 75 percent of those surveyed supported the law, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, according to OpinionWorks.
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