AUGUSTA — The sponsor of Maine’s distracted-driving law, hailed when enacted as a creative way to promote driver safety, is back with a new proposal that would ban text messaging while driving.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, acknowledged Tuesday at a public hearing before the Transportation Committee that the distracted-driving law has not done enough to deter dangerous behavior behind the wheel.

The law prohibits any activity that isn’t necessary to the operation of the vehicle and could reasonably be expected to impair driving, but does not ban any specific activities. Fines range from $25 to $500.

“The one thing it hasn’t done, which we hoped it would, is have an impact on the texting,” Diamond said. So he submitted a new measure, L.D. 736, that would specifically ban texting.

Another bill, L.D. 670, which would ban the use of hand-held phones while driving, also received a public hearing Tuesday. That bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Cynthia Dill, said Maine needs to be clear in its laws.

“I think a bill to prohibit distracted driving is ambiguous and for many people it’s not very meaningful,” said Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth. Dill said she sees no difference between talking on a hand-held phone and texting.

“In order to text, you have to turn on your phone and you press buttons. In order to use the cellular telephone, you turn it on and you press buttons,” she said.

Pat Moody, director of public affairs for AAA Northern New England, said 93 percent of Maine members surveyed last year said they favor a ban on texting.

“Texting while driving, like drunk driving, must be made socially unacceptable,” he said.

Diamond, who admitted he has texted while driving, cited studies indicating that it increases the risk of an accident.

“According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, drivers face crash risk or near-crash risk (that is) 23 times greater when texting,” he said. “According to the American Medical Association, text messaging while driving causes a 400 percent increase in the time spent with eyes off the road.”

Eight states ban drivers from using hand-held phones and 30 states ban texting while driving, Dill said.

Many groups and individuals – such as the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and Maine Motor Transport – testified in support of the bans, but the Maine Civil Liberties Union opposed both measures.

“These laws are ineffective, they open the doors to discretionary (police) stops, they invite widespread violation and create unintended consequences,” said Alysia Melnick of the MCLU.

The group does not dispute that texting or talking on the phone while driving is distracting, but does not believe the solution is to ban the behaviors, she said.

“There is no evidence that I’ve seen that banning texting or cell phone use works. Studies comparing data in states that have banned cell phone use have seen no associated decrease in accidents, and those comparing states that ban texting have seen increased accident rates, in fact,” Melnick said.

Lauren Stewart of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety said novice drivers are already banned from texting and talking on the phone in Maine, but she supports efforts to do more.

“Last year, driver inattention was either the primary or secondary cause in a crash report in about 49 percent of accidents,” she said.

The committee will schedule work sessions on the measures in the coming weeks.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]