AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers are again considering bills that would make it illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, would have Maine join 14 other states that ban the use of handheld mobile phones while driving. Another bill sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would make Maine one of at least a dozen states that restrict the use of mobile phones to hands-free devices.
The measures would strengthen the state’s law against districted driving, which was a factor in 8,000 accidents from 2011 to 2013 – including 41 fatalities, according to state records.
Maine is one of 44 states that bans texting while driving. However, advocates for the bills told the Transportation Committee on Friday that Maine’s current law against distracted driving, which includes fines from $250 to $500, doesn’t go far enough to discourage the activity.
The Department of Public Safety listed distracted driving as a cause in over 2,000 collisions on Maine highways in 2014, Katz said.
“Over a dozen of those resulted in a fatality, lives that did not have to end,” he said, adding later, “We can do better.”
The Department of Public Safety couldn’t provide data on how many citations have been issued under the distracted driving law, which primarily focuses on text messaging, not using a mobile phone.
Police have frequently complained that proving when a driver is texting or talking on a mobile phone is difficult. On Friday, York Police Chief Doug Bracey said prosecutors and judges tend not to push for distracted driving violations because the violation is hard to prove in court.
Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, expressed skepticism during both public hearings Friday that further rules were necessary. He asked why law enforcement couldn’t tell the difference between texting or dialing. Bracey told him that the only way to do so would be to seize phones via subpoena – a prosecution effort that isn’t always justified by the relatively small fine.
Maine passed its first distracted driving law in 2009, imposing a fine of $100 on violators. That law, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, was changed in 2011 to increase the penalty and ban texting while driving.
Diamond testified in support of Katz’s bill. He said it was time to further amend the law.
“I’ve seen some things driving up here that would make your hair stand up straight,” he said, adding that texting and using smartphones were just some of the activities he’s seen on the highway. Diamond and others described drivers watching movies on their phones, reading newspapers, putting on their makeup and shaving.
Kate Hendrick of Portland has had similar experiences.
“Every time I see someone swerving or not paying attention, I look over and they’ve got their hands in their laps,” texting or dialing a phone, she said. Hendrick, one of several people interviewed in Portland on Friday night, added that at night you can see the glow from their cellphones.
George Naaman of Freeport remembers getting his driver’s license in California and learning that it was illegal to even have one earbud in because listening to the radio could be considered a distraction.
He agrees that there are too many distractions for drivers and doesn’t use his flip phone while driving. No smartphone for him, Naaman said.
“It’s just $10 a month, for emergencies,” he said.
Nicole Moss of North Yarmouth said a law further restricting cellphone use sounds good in the abstract, but as a practical matter, it might be hard to undo years of driving while talking on the phone.
“I think there are times when I think I need to use my phone in the car,” Moss said, “but I could probably survive it.”
The multitude of non-cellphone distractions prompted some skeptics to tell lawmakers that the state should not single out phones.
Laura Parker, a resident of Sidney, said that if Katz’s bill passes, then the Legislature should enact penalties for other distractions, including driving with children, pets, driving while eating and driving with other cars on the road.
Parker’s remarks were sarcastic. Her point: “We have law enforcement officers who are trained to act accordingly. When you combine these with the fact … that the state of Maine already has a law to prohibit distracted driving, it renders this proposed law unnecessary.”
Law enforcement officials expressed support for Katz’s bill with some qualifications. Joel Merry, president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, took a neutral position on the proposal. He said the association supported the plan, but wanted to eliminate a proposed exemption for law enforcement and emergency personnel.
“The exception to allow drivers of authorized emergency vehicles to use hand-held cellphones creates a double standard that we are very sensitive to,” Merry said.
Katz said Friday that he agreed that the exemption should be removed.
The Department of Public Safety also took a neutral position, although Lauren Stewart, the director of the department’s Bureau of Highway Safety, told lawmakers that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration was willing to work with Katz to modify the proposal to possibly include license suspensions. Under current law, only fines are imposed for distracted driving.
Stewart’s testimony reflects comments made by LePage at a distracted driving event held in August, when he said license suspensions may be more of a deterrent.
“I used to think fines were the answers, but I really don’t think fines work,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to look at giving them a vacation from driving. We’re going to try to make the law stricter so people understand we are serious.”
According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of people killed in distraction-affected vehicle crashes decreased slightly from 3,360 in 2011 to 3,328 in 2012. An estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, a 9 percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011.
Distracted driving is a significant problem among young drivers.
According to federal data, 10 percent of the drivers under 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. For drivers in their 20s, the figure was 27 percent.
Telecommunications companies, which have lobbied lawmakers on previous bills to shape distracted-driving legislation, did not publicly testify on either of the bills, L.D. 246 and L.D. 185, on Friday, but their registered lobbyists were present.
The Transportation Committee will schedule work sessions for both bills later.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.