AUGUSTA — Responding to a recent string of highway deaths involving Maine’s youngest drivers, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law Tuesday a bill that zeroes in on provisional licenses and increases fines for any driver who sends text messages while behind the wheel.

Lawmakers enacted the bill late in the session that recessed in mid-April and sent it to the governor, who said he has seen his share of distracted driving from the passenger’s seat of the chief executive’s vehicle. In one case, he and the state trooper who drives for him saw a car careening all over the right-hand lane and they had to get into the passing lane to avoid it.

“It was a teacher correcting exams on the steering wheel,” LePage said.

The bill he signed stemmed from the 16 highway deaths of young drivers since Christmas. In perhaps the worst case, an 18-year-old who had been drinking alcohol and texting friends crashed into trees in January, killing two teenage passengers.

The new law will increase the minimum fine for texting while driving – for anyone, regardless of age – to a minimum of $250 and as much as $500. The fine is $100 now.

The other provisions are aimed at drivers with provisional licenses.

Fines and terms of license suspensions for violating conditions of a juvenile provisional license, such as limits on hours of driving, will increase.

The time for which repeat offenders lose their provisional licenses for violations will also increase, to a maximum of one year. Fees to get a provisional license reinstated will increase, and all provisional drivers whose licenses have been suspended will be required to take a four-hour improvement course as of Jan. 1.

The state attempted to crack down two years ago on distracted driving in general, but it had only limited success, said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who sponsored that bill as well as the latest one.

“I’ve seen on the turnpike, coming to Augusta every day, people brushing their teeth, shaving, reading. I had one attorney who told me he got through law school by reading his law books as he was on his way up to Augusta,” said Diamond, who oversaw motor vehicles regulation when he was secretary of state.

The distracted-driving law was sharpened last year by a law setting minimum $100 fines specifically for texting while driving, but supporters of the new bill said it still didn’t do enough to fix the problem.

The bill signed Tuesday was prompted by requests for stiffer penalties from parents and grandparents during public forums held in various communities by the current secretary of state, Charlie Summers.

He recalled speaking about the dangers of texting and driving to fifth-graders in a Presque Isle school, where he asked the 75 students to raise their hands if they knew anyone who texted behind the wheel or drove while distracted.

“Every single one of those kids raised their hands,” Summers said.

Since Christmas, there have been more than a dozen crashes resulting in 16 deaths in which the driver was between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the state Bureau of Highway Safety.

Although the new law won’t take effect until 90 days after the closing of this legislative session in May, supporters say they hope it has an early impact on youths’ driving behavior as spring prom season starts.