As a state legislator, Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond does a lot of driving between his home in Windham and the State House in Augusta. He says he has seen enough bad behavior on the roads.

The former Maine secretary of state announced Tuesday that he has proposed legislation to ban text messaging while driving in Maine.

The bill will most likely be taken up in January. If it’s adopted, Maine will join 32 other states that have prohibited drivers from texting, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“I’ve seen drivers shaving, (applying makeup), reading books and even brushing their teeth,” Diamond said. But by far the most dangerous habit, in his view, is texting.

Diamond said a driver who texts typically cradles a cell phone in their lap or holds it against the steering wheel.

“When you text, you are taking your eyes off the road, as well as your mind,” he said. “Driving is a privilege that we need to make as safe as possible.”

Last year, Diamond sponsored a bill aimed at curbing distracted driving. The law took effect on Sept. 12, 2009. It prohibits any activity that isn’t necessary to the operation of the vehicle and could reasonably be expected to impair driving. Fines range from $25 to $500.

That law has curbed some of drivers’ more outrageous behavior, such as shaving or brushing teeth, but Diamond said it doesn’t go far enough. His proposed legislation is aimed specifically at people who are caught texting while driving.

“There is a tremendous amount of public support for this law,” said Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA Northern New England.

A poll of AAA members showed that their second-biggest concern, behind drunken driving, is drivers who are texting, Moody said. Ninety-four percent of AAA members in Maine said they would support a ban on texting while driving.

“You see (drivers who text) all the time. Their cars are weaving all over the road. Taking your eyes off the road, even for two seconds, doubles your chance of getting into an accident,” Moody said. “It seems to us to be a reasonable and sensible solution to a growing problem.”

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website – www.distraction.gov – adults are just as likely as teenagers to have texted while driving.

The website says people of all ages are using hand-held devices such as cell phones, mp3 players, personal digital assistants and navigation devices while driving.

“Texting while driving is one of the most dangerous distractions a motorist can engage in. Each year, nearly 6,000 people die in crashes where distraction played a major role. This is an epidemic that affects everyone,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement issued Tuesday.

LaHood plans to host the National Distracted Driving Summit on Sept. 21 in Washington, D.C. Diamond said he will attend.

Diamond’s proposed legislation drew a lukewarm reception from law enforcement officials Tuesday.

“I think it is probably necessary,” said Westbrook Police Chief William Baker. “But on the downside, it will be a public relations disaster for us. This is just one more law that we will need to enforce.”

Baker said drivers are growing tired of having officers pull them over for infractions such as driving without seat belts.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said he has concerns about whether such a law could be enforced. He said he thinks the distracted-driving law has been effective.

One of the first motorists to be charged under that law was in his jurisdiction. A driver went off the road and hit a telephone pole. When the deputy asked her what had happened, she replied, “I’ll be honest. I was sending a text message.”

Merry questions how an officer is supposed to determine whether a driver is texting or dialing a number on their cell phone. “It’s going to be a difficult law to enforce,” he said.

Diamond says he is optimistic that his bill will pass. He announced his intentions this week in hopes of building momentum. He also has launched a Facebook page, “Ban Texting While Driving in Maine.”

“I think the Legislature will support this law because it has become such a problem,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]