A secondary law banning hand-held cell phone use while driving passed the Maryland legislature in its waning hours and is slated to take effect October 1, 2010. Because the new ban on hand-held cell phones in Maryland is a secondary law, police officers can enforce it only if the driver is detained for another offense.

Secondary laws are largely ineffective, as the New York experience with secondary anti-texting laws has demonstrated. Among five New York counties surveyed, only one has issued a single ticket for texting in the five months the law has been on the books.

When it comes to public safety, hand-held cell phone bans are misleading and may give the false impression that driving with hands-free cell phones is safe. If Maryland’s hand-held cell phone ban encourages the use of hands-free cell phones, it may be counter-productive. If the law merely encourages drivers using hand-held cells to switch to hands-free, its effect on public safety will likely be neutral.

Nationally, drivers using cell phones cause 2,600 deaths and 333,000 injuries annually. In 2006, Maryland experienced 51 distracted driving fatalities and 14,177 injuries.

For the victims of distracted driving, Maryland’s new hand-held cell phone ban is unlikely to offer any relief. Not only is the law a secondary law, it contains exceptions allowing drivers to turn hand-held cell phones on and off while driving. The first-offense fine of $40 can be waived if the driver shows proof of purchase of a hands-free set. The second-offense fine is $100. Unlike certain other states, Maryland’s law does not contain enhanced penalties for cell phone users who cause a crash.

An injury victim pursuing a negligent driving claim against a distracted Maryland driver talking on a cell phone will likely have to prove his claim the old fashioned way, as the weakness of the law and its exceptions undercut any argument that the law is premised on hand-held cell phone use being uniformly dangerous.

The new Maryland hand-held cell phone ban does ban the use of cell phones by drivers of school vehicles.