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New Maryland bill seeks to strengthen distracted driving laws

Distracted driving is a common problem in Maryland. Cases are so frequent that this behavior behind the wheel has been referred to as the "new drunk driving." However, a newly proposed law in Maryland seeks to add more bite to existing distracted driving laws.

According to the Maryland Highway Safety Office, more than one-fifth of motor vehicle crashes measured over a period of four years involved a distracted driver. The state already has laws prohibiting drivers from texting, talking, emailing and surfing social media sites while driving. However these driving behaviors still exist, so drivers may perceive the penalties as inconsequential. Advocates are lobbying for a bill called "Jake's Law," which would increase penalties to deter driver negligence and avoid auto accidents.

The law is named after Jake Owen, a five-year-old who was killed in a distracted driving accident. The boy was killed after a distracted driver slammed into the back of the vehicle carrying Jake. The driver had been using a cell phone and was unable to stop in time to avoid the crash. Despite the fatal consequences, the driver only was fined $1,000.

Jake's Law aims to fit the penalty to the crime by adding a prison sentence of three years and a fine of $5,000 for drivers who are found guilty of causing a fatal accident or an accident causing serious injury as a result of distracted driving. Besides stricter penalties, it also requires drivers to provide police with basic cell phone information so officers can check if the driver was using a cell phone prior to the accident. However, this portion of the law has drawn opposition from privacy advocates.

While the bill awaits its time before the Senate, Laurel, Maryland, accident victims and their families may choose to file a personal injury lawsuit. Legal action may hold a negligent driver responsible and may lead to a monetary award for the victim.

Source: The Washington Post, "'Jake's Law' addresses penalties for distracted driving," Jenna Johnson, Mar. 10, 2014

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