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Drivers talking on their cellphones now face heftier penalties under a new Maryland law that took effect Tuesday.

Beginning Oct. 1, police are able to pull over drivers and ticket them if they are talking directly into a cellphone or holding it while on speaker. For the last three years, the offense was considered secondary, and police could issue a ticket only if another traffic violation was witnessed.

Using a hands-free device to talk on a cellphone is still allowed.

Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans (R) said law enforcement officers are prepared to enforce the change in the law. He said there will be an initial warning phase, where deputies will issue “a lot of warnings, but that will end quickly,” and drivers will be faced with paying the fines.

Evans said inattention and distracted driving is “our primary cause for accidents.” He said the changes in the law will reduce the number of distractions while driving and, hopefully, will contribute to safer conditions on the road.

“I think if people are paying more attention, it should reduce accidents,” he said.

Similarly, 1st Sgt. Shane Bolger, acting commander of the Maryland State Police Prince Frederick barrack, said there are many distractions to drivers on the road, and he hopes this new law will help “cut down” on those.

“I think [the law] is going to reduce the distracted driving incidents we have and collisions directly related to distracted driving,” Bolger said. “[Tuesday] was the first day of the law and we had enforcement with the law, and it seemed everyone’s compliant with it now. As long as they continue to do so, I think it’ll help … contribute to the reduction of crashes in the county.”

Fines for a first-time offense are now up to $75, increasing to $125 for a second violation and $175 for a third.

If the violation is determined to have contributed to an accident, the motorist’s driver’s license will be assessed 3 points.

Anyone caught talking on a cellphone while driving a commercial vehicle can be fined $290.

Texting while driving was already a primary offense in Maryland, as it is in nearly all of the country.

What had amounted to a “slap on the wrist” for getting caught while using a cellphone while driving was not a big enough deterrent, according to AAA and other traffic safety advocates.

“We are pleased that the Maryland General Assembly recognized the importance of strengthening the hand-held cellphone ban, as it will now serve as a real deterrent to motorists and enable police to better enforce the existing law,” Mahlon G. Anderson, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s managing director, said in a statement. “This measure will help stem the epidemic of distracted drivers in Maryland.”

Based on preliminary Maryland motor vehicle crash data for 2012, approximately 58 percent — 52,136 — of the 89,655 total vehicle crashes involved a distracted driver, according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration’s Highway Safety Office. Nearly half — 246 — of the estimated 511 fatalities on Maryland’s roads in 2012 were due to a distracted driver.

The Maryland General Assembly last spring also strengthened the state’s seat belt law. Now anyone riding in the back seat of a vehicle is required to wear a seat belt; previously, that rule only applied to those 16 and younger. The new law is a secondary offense, but carries a penalty of up to $50, plus court costs.

The fine for failing to secure a child younger than 8 in an appropriate child safety seat increased to $50.

People not wearing a seat belt are 30 times more likely to be ejected from a vehicle during a crash, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than three out of four people who are ejected during a crash die from their injuries.

“While the rear seat is the safest place to ride in a car, that does not mean passengers should not buckle up. Unbelted back seat passengers are just as vulnerable to injuries or even death in a crash as those in the front seat,” Anderson said in the statement. “Wearing a seat belt is your best defense against injury or death in the event of a crash.”

Staff writers Katie Fitzpatrick and Gretchen Phillips contributed to the report. jyeatman@somdnews.com