“Jake’s Law” would make some texting crashes a misdemeanor

Distracted driving laws are under review in the Maryland General Assembly. (Credit: Verona Patch)

A proposed Maryland measure known as “Jake’s Law” would make causing a fatal accident while using a cellphone a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine, according to Delegate Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore.

The bill is named for Jake Owen, a Baltimore native who was 5 years old when a driver crashed into his family’s car on Dec. 28, 2011. Jake was killed as a result of the crash.

“‘Mom, I have 43 lives,’” were Jake’s last words, according to his mother, Susan Yum, who said Jake was playing a Super Mario video game at the time of the crash.

“I think about the irony of his words every day,” Yum told lawmakers Wednesday.

The other driver never noticed traffic around him had stopped for a previous accident on Interstate 83, according to Yum.

John Cox, deputy state’s attorney for Baltimore County, said that the driver had been on his phone for almost 10 minutes and had not reacted until two-tenths of a second before impact. He also said the driver ignored a traffic advisory sign that warned of the accident several miles in advance.

“He never touched his brake,” Cox said at a House judiciary committee hearing on the bill.

Despite this, Cox said, 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.

“It’s an expensive parking ticket,” said James Owen, Jake’s father. “It’s a slap on the wrist.”

More than 3,300 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes in 2012, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics. The federal report also said that 666,000 people are using electronic devices while driving during every moment of daylight in the U.S.

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.

At the bill’s judiciary committee hearing, Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, said that Jake’s Law may be too specific, arguing that amending current laws would achieve the same end more effectively than a new law.

Cox disagreed.

“There’s no reason not to address that which is the greatest problem,” he said.

The bill would also force those charged to surrender their phone number and carrier so the state can subpoena for more information, according to Clippinger. He compared this to police demanding a blood test to of a driver at the scene of an accident to check for alcohol.

James Owen said he hopes the impact of Jake’s Law will be felt nationwide.

“We want Maryland first, but this is a cautionary tale you can tell anyone anywhere,” he said.


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