Little did the young woman know, as she sailed down Interstate 295 tapping away on her smartphone, that the guy trying to get her attention from the passing lane was the chief of the Maine State Police.
“She’s obviously texting,” recalled Col. Robert Williams. “So I say, ‘I’m going to slow down and at least give her a hand gesture to knock it off.’ ”
She never so much as looked up. Williams, on his way to a troop inspection in South Portland in tandem with another state police unit, decided to keep moving – at which point the officer behind him also noticed the woman’s inattention.
“So her head’s been down 20 or 30 seconds while all of this transpires,” Williams said. “And she’s still texting.”
Finally, the other officer pulled the woman over.
Her response: “I wasn’t texting. I was making a phone call!”
Beyond issuing a warning, there was nothing the officer could do.
“The law allows you to dial a number,” lamented Williams. “It also allows you to use GPS devices.”
All of which raised an obvious question as Maine’s tougher anti-texting statute took effect last week: Is it tough enough?
If you drive, you’ve been there: You’re sitting at a stop light that turns green and the car in front of you doesn’t budge because the driver, head down, is lost in the wonders of modern technology.
Or you’re driving down a rural road when the car coming toward you suddenly veers over the center line, leaving you only seconds to honk your horn and swerve to avoid a head-on collision.
Or perhaps you’ve been lost in that little screen yourself, reading that message from home and quickly tapping out “OK” while you traverse the equivalent of a football field with your eyes (and your mind) off the road.
“I’m sort of weaning myself by turning the phone off altogether,” admitted Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in an interview Friday. “Because I’m as guilty as anybody else. And I’m going to end up in the woods upside-down.”
Maine’s new ban on texting while driving, passed by the Legislature last spring, ups the fine for a first-time offense from $100 to $250.
Beyond that, additional infractions within a three-year period will earn you a $500 fine and a mandatory, non-appealable license suspension of 30 days for the second offense, 60 days for the third and 90 days for the fourth and subsequent violations.
Changes for the better, to be sure. After all, alarmed as we might be about the crisis in Washington, D.C., and the end of democracy as we know it, how often do we stop and consider that we’re all but one text message – ours or someone else’s – away from the end, period?
“You don’t set out every morning to go wherever it is that you’re going and think, ‘Oh, this might be my last day,’ ” noted Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. “But the fact is that’s what happens to a lot of people as a result of someone’s actions.”
Yet even as the safety bureau rolls out a campaign against distracted driving of all types (that includes you, makeup artist rolling through a stop sign), law enforcement types find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to making the new law stick.
Portland police recently fanned out over Maine’s largest city in an undercover attempt to catch people in the act of texting – unmarked cars manned by two officers did the snooping while cruisers waited nearby to make the bust. According to Assistant Chief Vern Malloch, the operation resulted in five summonses.
“A large piece of it is to have a conversation with the driver,” Malloch said. “What we’re looking for is some kind of admission that what they were doing was in fact texting or doing emails or something like that.”
Without that admission, or the easier-said-than-done observation of someone actually typing out a text message, there’s not a lot an officer can do beyond a written warning.
Confiscating the actual mobile device would require a search warrant and, as State Police Chief Williams noted, “the question becomes, ‘Can you even get a search warrant?’ Because it’s not a crime, it’s a civil infraction.”
Thus, said Williams, enforcing the new law “takes a little finesse.”
“Most people you stop are fairly honest,” he said. “But if they say no, you’ve got to figure out how to prove that case without their admission. There are people who don’t readily admit when they’ve done something wrong.”
Meaning that, like the woman on the interstate who slipped through the phone-dialing loophole, they get away with it.
Williams said state police use a high-riding, unmarked van, as well as officers looking down from highway overpasses, to spot people in the act of texting. But the long-term goal, he added, is not to see how many summonses they can hand out.
“It’s to stop the behavior,” Williams said.
On that note, let’s go to the numbers: According to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, you’re 23 times more likely to have an accident while texting than if you’re focusing only on your driving.
At the same time, according to the NHSTA, driving while texting is six times more dangerous than driving drunk – which explains why texting overtook drinking last year as the leading cause of driving fatalities among adolescents.
(In a 2010 survey of 1,999 teenage drivers by AAA and Seventeen magazine, 22 percent of the respondents said they text behind the wheel because it makes driving “less boring.”)
Still not impressed?
Then answer this: How willing would you be to drive 123 yards, at 55 mph, completely blindfolded? That, in effect, is what you’re doing for every five seconds you spend reading or responding to a text message.
Secretary of State Dunlap, who oversees the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, wonders if the ultimate solution here is to take mobile devices – hand-held or hard-wired into a new vehicle’s dashboard “control center” – out of the driving equation altogether.
“The technology, I’m sure, is there,” Dunlap said. “If we’re tracking all these cellphones by satellite, they should be able to shut off the texting function” when the device is moving at high speed.
Interesting idea – although not everyone traveling at high speed happens to be behind the wheel of an automobile.
Bottom line, fellow Mainers, it’s still up to you … and the guy fast approaching you … and the kid tailgating you … and the woman barreling toward the next intersection …
You can pull over and do your texting at a full and complete stop. (Last month, New York went so far as to designate 91 “text stops” along the state’s highway system.)
Or, if you’re the honest type, you can admit to the cop who pulls you over that you were texting – and pay Maine’s new-and-more-painful penalty.
Or you can lie to the officer, toss the warning in the glove compartment and go on your distracted way.
Until the day you die.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: