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It is Sine Die in Annapolis, the scheduled day of adjournment for the Maryland 2018 General Assembly Session, and lawmakers in both chambers are sending a strong message to drivers that they will soon face tougher penalties, if they are convicted of driving while impaired by alcohol, drugs or both or by controlled dangerous substances.
Lawmakers are also throwing the book at distracted drivers caught in the act of using a handheld telephone while driving. Additionally, it is unlikely lawmakers will give the nod to making Maryland the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana, which is welcome news to those, including AAA, who opposed the bill due to traffic safety concerns.
Issues AAA Mid-Atlantic advocated for or against and the status of the legislation as of 9:30 a.m. include:
Drunk and Drugged Driving
Several pieces of impaired driving legislation were introduced this year, including SB296 – Drunk and Drugged Driving – Subsequent Offenders (Repeat Drunk Driving Offenders Act of 2018), which was sponsored by Senate President, Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, Jr., on behalf of Governor Larry Hogan.
This bill, which passed, will increase the penalties for those repeat impaired driving offenders, who have been previously convicted of three or more alcohol or drugged driving-related offenses. SB 296 also increases penalties for those who have been previously convicted of vehicular homicide or causing a life-threatening injury by motor vehicle or vessel.
A repeat offender under this law would be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction would be subject to imprisonment for up to 10 years or a fine of $10,000 or both. AAA Mid-Atlantic testified in support of the original bill, which would have made repeat offenders guilty of a felony upon conviction.
“While we are pleased that this important traffic safety bill has passed with stronger penalties for repeat offenders, we are disappointed that these convicted drivers will be guilty of a misdemeanor instead of a felony,” commented Ragina Cooper Averella, Manager of Public and Government Affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Driving is a privilege and those who take that privilege lightly and put the lives of others in harm’s way deserve to be punished accordingly.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nationally there were 37,461 people killed in traffic crashes in 2016, an increase of 5.6 percent from calendar year 2015. An estimated 10,497 people (28 percent of total fatalities) died in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes.
In Maryland, 522 people were killed in traffic crashes during 2016. Of those fatalities, 148 deaths (28 percent) were due to crashes involving a drunk or drugged driver, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Office.
Drivers caught talking on a handheld telephone behind the wheel in Maryland will face one of the toughest and highest fines for the offense in the nation. Although lawmakers were initially eyeing a maximum fine of $500, the measure was whittled down to half that amount for a first time offense.
Maryland will soon join Hawaii with a $250 fine, although the fine for a first offense ranges from $200 to $400 in New Jersey and up to $500 in Oregon. In fact, HB42 - Use of Handheld Telephone While Driving – Penalty: the amended bill, which passed, would increase the maximum fine for using a handheld telephone while driving a motor vehicle to $250 from Maryland’s current three -tier penalty system with the maximum fine at $175.
“We are hopeful that passing this legislation will be another step toward changing drivers’ behaviors and attitudes on distracted driving,” Averella said. A recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study found that the number of drivers who report using a cellphone behind the wheel has increased 30 percent since 2013.
Additionally, subsequent convictions for a driver within a five year-year period will result an assessment of one point on their driver’s license. The new law takes effect October 1.
During 2017, 32,286 adult motorists in Maryland were issued citations for using a handheld telephone, according to the Maryland District Court. Maryland is just one of 15 states that prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving, notes AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Legalization of Recreational Marijuana
While not introduced as a traffic safety bill, HB 1264/SB 1039 – Constitutional Amendment - Cannabis - Use, Possession, Cultivation, and Sale, if passed by the General Assembly and subsequently by Maryland voters at the next general election, would have serious consequences for traffic safety.
A similar bill was introduced last year, which AAA Mid-Atlantic opposed, but the bill failed as it did not come up for a committee vote, and it appears this year’s bill will have the same fate. AAA Mid-Atlantic, joined by SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), was once again a vocal opponent in Annapolis this year.
As an advocate for the safety of motorists, AAA Mid-Atlantic is troubled by the safety implications of individuals using marijuana and getting behind the wheel. Marijuana impairs psychomotor skills and cognitive functions, including reaction time, distance perception, lane tracking, motor coordination, and attention span.
Most states are not fully prepared to handle an increasing spike in drugged driving. That is largely because there is no easy roadside test for law enforcement to determine whether a driver is impaired by marijuana, or to reliably predict driver impairment due to consumption of marijuana. Unlike with alcohol, the presence of certain amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana in the bloodstream does not correlate with driver impairment.
“Drugged driving is on the rise and is a serious traffic safety concern for Maryland motorists,” said Averella. In an exclusive AAA poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling last year, 85 percent of Maryland drivers surveyed consider someone driving after using illegal drugs a serious threat to their safety. Seventy-two percent of Maryland drivers indicated they are somewhat or very concerned about the dangers posed by others driving after using illegal drugs.
Expanded Move-Over Law
A bill AAA Mid-Atlantic supported, and which passed, is SB 445 – Motor Vehicles – Operation When Approaching Vehicle With Visual Signals. Introduced by the late Senator Wayne Norman (D-District 35, Harford and Cecil Counties) and co-sponsored by five other senators, the bill is an expansion of Maryland’s current move-over bill to include service vehicles. Maryland’s current law only applies to emergency vehicles and tow trucks.
Maryland’s move-over law requires drivers approaching an emergency vehicle, tow truck, and now service vehicle, (from the rear) that is stopped, standing, or parked on a highway with emergency lights flashing to merge into an available lane not immediately adjacent to the vehicle. If not practical (either due to traffic volume or road design), the motorist must slow significantly below the posted speed limit while passing the emergency personnel.
“AAA Mid-Atlantic recognizes the need to have service truck drivers included in move-over laws, as they face the same dangers as first responders and tow truck operators when conducting business on the side of our roadways,” said Averella.
Motor vehicle-related incidents are consistently the leading cause of work-related fatalities in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, transportation-related incidents remained the most common fatal occupational event in 2016, accounting for 40 percent (2,083).
Warranty Requirements Notification To Vehicle Owners/Lessees
AAA Mid-Atlantic supported HB 434, which is a consumer awareness bill that essentially requires the auto manufacturer to notify the purchaser or lessee of a new motor vehicle in the state, within 90 days after purchase or lease, of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. The Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act is a federal statute that makes it illegal for an auto manufacturer or dealer to void a motor vehicle warranty or deny warranty coverage because a person other than the dealer serviced the vehicle or, because an aftermarket or recycled part was used to repair the vehicle.
This legislation will ensure that consumers are made aware of their rights and can make informed decisions when having their vehicle repaired or serviced. The bill passed the House unanimously with amendments. The bill is now poised to be voted upon by the Senate.
“Unfortunately, many consumers are not aware of their rights when it comes to having their car repaired, and in fact, some are of the misbelief that their vehicle’s warranty will be voided if they have it serviced somewhere other than the dealership. We support the rights of consumers to have their vehicles serviced at the repair facility of their choice,” Averella said.
Other Key Bills of Interest
Bill and Summary
HB 881 - Aggressive Driving: would reduce the required number of offenses that a person must commit at the same time or during a single and continuous period of driving to constitute aggressive driving.
Passed the House and is with the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee
SB 439 - Protective Headgear Requirement for Motorcycle Riders: Sponsored by the late Senator H. Wayne Norman, bill would have repealed the requirement for riders at least 21 years of age to wear a helmet.
Did not proceed to a committee vote.
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AAA provides automotive, travel and insurance services to 58 million members nationwide and more than 937,000 members in Maryland. AAA advocates for the safety and mobility of its members and has been committed to outstanding road service for more than 100 years. The not-for-profit, fully tax-paying member organization works on behalf of motorists, who can now map a route, find local gas prices, discover discounts, book a hotel and track their roadside assistance service with the AAA Mobile app for iPhone, iPad and Android. For more information, visit AAA.com.