D.C. area rings in year with new laws set to take effect

Concealed Carry

Beginning Friday, Virginians can no longer hold a cellphone while driving, Maryland workers will be paid a higher minimum wage and D.C. retailers can no longer sell packing peanuts.

These are some of the new laws in the D.C. area that take effect early in the new year.

Virginians who are caught holding a cellphone while driving may face a fine of up to $125 for the first offense under a new law. Subsequent offenses and violating the law in a highway work zone may result in a $250 fine. Exceptions to the rule include drivers who use a phone to report an emergency and select safety officials operating vehicles while on duty.

The restriction expands upon an existing law that bans reading and typing while driving, as well as holding a mobile device in a designated work zone while behind the wheel.

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reported 128,172 crashes in 2019, and proponents of the new law hope it will reduce the number of crashes each year.

Distracted driving is linked to 80% of all collisions in the commonwealth, according to a recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
Virginia is one of more than 20 states and the District that have hands-free driving laws.

Also, Virginia gun owners seeking to obtain a concealed carry permit will not be allowed to demonstrate competence by passing a safety course offered online, electronically or via video. Applicants must take an in-person course that is taught by a state-certified entity or the National Rifle Association.

Supporters of the new law said virtual courses were “too quick and easy,” while opponents feared it would “complicate” the permit request process.

In March, the odor of marijuana will no longer be a substantial basis for law enforcement officials to search or seize a person, place, or thing.

The new law comes as Gov. Ralph Northam plans to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in the upcoming legislative session.

Medical marijuana is already legal in the commonwealth, and the governor signed off on a bill in May to decriminalize simple marijuana possession, which went into effect in July.

Recreational marijuana has been legalized in more than a dozen states and the District, and several states also allow commercial sales of the substance.

In addition, the minimum wage for all Virginia employees will increase in May from the federally mandated rate of $7.25 an hour to $9.50. The minimum wage will gradually increase until it reaches $15 an hour in 2026. The pay hike was approved by the state legislature and Mr. Northam.

Maryland also is gradually increasing its minimum wage until all employees are paid $15 an hour in 2026.

This year, businesses with 15 or more employees are required to pay them 75 cents more an hour, raising the minimum to $11.75. Those fewer employees will pay $11.60 an hour.

The pay increase is the second installment of annual increases that began in 2019, when the sum rose from $10.10 to $11 an hour.

Gov. Larry Hogan had vetoed the wage hike, but the General Assembly overrode his veto.

Beginning Jan. 13, businesses in Baltimore will be required to charge customers at least 5 cents if they use a paper, plastic or compostable bag provided by the store. One cent of the surcharge will go to the city.

The initiative is part of an effort to reduce the area’s carbon footprint by encouraging shoppers to bring their own bag.

Officials are issuing a “limited number” of cost-free reusable bags to residents with accessibility challenges, according to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

Similar bag charges are in place in localities throughout the state, as well as in the District and Virginia.

The District also is implementing new green initiatives on Jan. 1, including prohibiting stores and retail establishments from selling styrofoam storage containers such as coolers, as well as packing peanuts.

The new rule builds on the city’s 2016 ban of disposable styrofoam-based food service ware.

Moreover, building energy performance standards set by the city will become stricter for structures that are 10,000 square feet or more in size.

The D.C. Department of Energy and Environment is set to announce the tightened requirements by Jan. 1, and new requirements will be put in place every six years thereafter. The changes are part of a plan to achieve a 50% decrease in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 2032.

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