Effective October 1, two traffic safety laws passed during this year’s Maryland General Assembly session will immediately alter motorists’ current driving habits.

The one attracting the most attention and causing the most trepidation is the Hand-Held Cell Phone While Driving Ban, S.B. 321. Named the Delegate John Arnick Electronic Communications Traffic Safety Act of 2010, this law requires motorists in Maryland to use a hands-free device, such as a Bluetooth headset or speaker, to talk on cell phones while the vehicle is in motion, except to initiate or terminate the call, turn off the hand-held phone or call 911.

The violation is enforceable only as a secondary offense, meaning a driver can only be cited if pulled over for another offense, such as speeding. Drivers could be fined $40 for an initial violation and $100 for subsequent ones. The legislation is in memory of the late Delegate Arnick who initially introduced legislation to ban text messaging while serving in the General Assembly.

“While a hand-held cell phone ban may help reduce the physical distraction of using a cell phone, hands-free is not necessarily risk-free. The real distraction is the holding of the conversation, not the holding of the phone, and using a hands-free phone while driving can still impair a driver’s reaction time to critical events,” commented Ragina C. Averella, Manager of Public and Government Affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“While the new law is a step in the right direction to reduce driver distractions, we still continue to urge motorists to avoid the use of cell phones, as well as avoid any other distracting behaviors while driving when at all possible.”

The new law applies to fully licensed drivers so teen drivers with learner’s permits and provisional licenses are reminded that they still are prohibited from talking on a cell phone while driving, even if it is hands-free, until they obtain their full driver’s license. The only exception is to make a 911 call. Violations may result in a suspension of the teen’s driving privileges.

The hand-held cell phone ban is the second piece of distracted driving legislation to become law over the past two years. In 2009, the Maryland General Assembly passed the initial “Delegate John Arnick Electronic Communications Traffic Safety Act,” which prohibits a person from writing or sending a text message while driving and is punishable with a $500 fine. The law is enforceable as a primary offense, which means a driver can be pulled over solely for this violation.

Both of these laws are riding the growing wave of public sentiment over the safety concern of distracted driving, and rightly so given the alarming statistics. Nearly 6,000 people were killed and an estimated 515,000 people injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2008 that were reported to have involved distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Maryland, there were 23,707 inattentive driving-related vehicle crashes in 2008 resulting in 11,636 injuries and 35 fatalities according to the Maryland Highway Safety Office.

The other law to take effect on Oct. 1 is the Move Over Law. H.B. 499, Motor Vehicles – Approaching Emergency Vehicles and Personnel, was sponsored by five legislators, including lead sponsor Delegate James E. Malone, Jr. (D – District 12A). New York and Hawaii are the only states, as well as the District of Columbia, without some form of move-over law.

The bill requires drivers approaching an emergency vehicle that is stopped, standing, or parked on a highway and using any visual signals, to make a lane change into an available lane not immediately adjacent to the emergency vehicle or to slow to a reasonable and prudent speed that is safe. “This bill will help protect our police officers and other first responders who put their lives at risk every day,” commented Averella.