Most of us have done it. You pull up to a red light, your foot goes on the brake—and your hand reaches for the cell phone beside you. But next time you start to text or check your messages at a stop light, you may want to think twice about the laws for using a mobile device at a traffic light. Is texting at a red light really illegal? And what happens if you use your phone at a red light in Maryland?
We’ll take a look at the cell phone laws and penalties for Maryland drivers, and why texting at a stop light may not be as safe as we might think. To learn more about legal options following an accident caused by a distracted driver in Maryland, contact an auto collision attorney from Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz, LLC.
Maryland Cell Phone Laws for Drivers
Is texting and driving illegal in Maryland? The answer in the majority of cases is yes, texting behind the wheel is illegal. Maryland Code states that the use of any handheld device to send a text or electronic message is prohibited while driving. The only exceptions to the law are situations in which a driver needs to text 911 or use a GPS. Reading, writing, and sending text messages are all considered illegal under state law.
Like Maryland, most states ban texting and driving. But not every state prohibits the use of handheld mobile devices for other purposes, like making a phone call. Drivers in MD also need to know: Can you talk on a cell phone while driving in Maryland? If the cell phone is held in your hand, no. The state of Maryland is what is referred to as a “hands-free” state. Under the hands-free driving law, it is illegal to use a handheld device for phone conversations. Some drivers are allowed to make hands-free calls while driving (such as through a Bluetooth device), but only those over the age of 18 with unrestricted licenses. Exceptions to the no-handheld-calls law are limited to emergency situations, such as when a driver needs to call 911, a hospital, an ambulance service provider, a fire department, or a law enforcement agency.
The Maryland statute states that “a driver of a motor vehicle that is in motion may not use the driver’s hands to use a handheld telephone.” For some drivers, the phrase “in motion” could be interpreted to exclude cars stopped at red lights. But according to Maryland State Police Sergeant DeVaughn Parker, MD cell phone laws still apply to drivers stopped at traffic lights. “If you’re stopped at a traffic light and your vehicle is in drive, you can be cited,” Sgt. Parker clarified.
When a vehicle is stopped at a red light or stop sign, the engine is still engaged and—more importantly—the driver must also remain mentally and physically engaged. This is very different from a situation in which the vehicle in pulled over safely and put in park. Stopping at a red light requires the driver to keep their foot on the brake, watch for the signal to change, and be attentive to surrounding conditions so they can react to any potential dangers. When distracted by a cell phone, a driver is compromised in their ability to carry out these tasks.
Is It Dangerous to Text at a Red Light?
The dangers of using a mobile phone while driving are well documented. There is little controversy over the seriousness of this problem in the United States. Research has consistently shown a strong correlation between increased phone use while driving and higher rates of accidents, injuries, and deaths. Although it’s difficult to put exact numbers to the scope of this issue, we can conservatively say that over 3,000 people are killed in distracted driving accidents each year, and tens of thousands are injured.
Drivers distracted by a mobile phone behind the wheel are visually, manually, cognitively, and often emotionally impaired—meaning their eyes, hands, and mind are not able to properly focus on the task of safe driving. For this reason, every state in the nation (with the exception of Montana), Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have all enacted laws limiting mobile phone use for drivers.
But what about using a cell phone while the vehicle is stopped at a red light? Are there dangers associated with checking your messages or scrolling through social media while waiting for a light to turn green? Many drivers mistakenly believe that their duties as a driver are put on hold when the car is stopped. But statistics show that the number of stopped vehicle accidents occurring each day in the U.S. is surprisingly high.
For the following reasons (and others) checking your phone at a traffic light is not as safe as we may hope to believe:
- Texting drivers usually use peripheral vision to watch for the movement of other cars, not the changing of the light itself. This can easily result in a rear-end collision.
- Drivers looking at a phone screen are much more likely to not see and strike a pedestrian or bicyclist crossing an intersection.
- Distracted drivers have difficulty reacting to the unanticipated or unusual actions of other drivers. If another vehicle’s driver runs a red light, makes an illegal turn, speeds through the intersection, or makes any other error, the distracted driver may not be able to act quickly enough to prevent a crash.
- Auditory distraction from a cell phone can prevent drivers from hearing warning sounds outside the car, like the horns of other vehicles.
- Distraction does not end the second your eyes leave the phone screen. Studies have estimated that a person’s attention is diverted for about half a minute after reading a message, hanging up the phone, or taking their eyes away from a screen.
What Is the Penalty for Texting and Driving in Maryland?
Drivers should be aware of the penalties for texting or using a handheld mobile device while driving in Maryland. There are fines and other consequences for using a cell phone while operating a vehicle. The maximum fines and punishments for using a handheld device behind the wheel in Maryland are based on the following schedule:
- $83 for a first offense
- $140 for a second offense
- $160 for a third offense
- Points added to the driver’s license in the event of a crash
- Additional $70 and one point added to the driver’s license for writing, sending, or reading a text message
- Additional $110 and three points if texting results in a crash
- $5,000 and up to a three-year jail sentence for handheld phone use that results in a crash seriously injuring or killing another person (Jake’s Law)
Texting behind the wheel is also considered a primary offense. This means that if an officer of the law observes you using a handheld device while driving, they have the legal authority to pull you over for that offense alone. In short, if a police officer sees you check your phone at a red light in Maryland, you could be fined.
Distracted Driving in Maryland
Distracted driving is a national problem, and our state is no exception. Across a four-year period of research, there were over 56,000 motor vehicle crashes in Maryland caused by distracted driving. Maryland’s metropolitan areas see the highest rates of distracted driving accidents. The Baltimore metropolitan area has the highest concentration of distracted driving collisions—over 46% of all distracted driving crashes in the state. Together with Washington D.C., these two urban areas comprise 85% of all Maryland car accidents involving a distracted driver.
If you were involved in a collision with a distracted driver in Maryland and sustained serious injuries, please reach out to Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz, LLC for more information about what legal actions can be taken to obtain compensation for your losses.