Ask your local police chief. Ask a state trooper. Ask the Department of Public Safety. They all agree: The use of cellphones by drivers has replaced drunken driving as the biggest public safety risk on Maine highways.

All of us see it daily. A car on the interstate drifts into our lane. We have to swerve to avoid it. The driver is on a cellphone. Someone blows through an intersection. Fortunately, no one is hurt. The driver is on a cellphone. We are stopped at a red light and hear the squealing brakes behind us as a car narrowly avoids rear-ending us. The driver is on a cellphone.

In 2014, police listed “driver distraction” as a cause in over 2,000 collisions on Maine highways, and they tell us that in reality, the number is actually much higher. We know that many, many of those drivers were texting or talking on the phone. Over a dozen resulted in a fatality. These are lives that did not have to end.

This is not legislation by anecdote. The subject has been researched to death in study after study, and the verdict is in. Driving down the road while using a handheld phone is the equivalent of a .08 blood-alcohol level in terms of its impact on one’s ability to concentrate and focus. Think about that.

When cellphones were first introduced, no one could have predicted all the ways they would affect our lives, both positively and negatively. We certainly did not anticipate that using a hand-held phone while driving is the scientific equivalent of drinking and driving.

We shouldn’t do it. Most of us are guilty ourselves. In fact, as a group, legislators are probably among the worst offenders. That doesn’t make it right.

We need to remind ourselves that driving is a privilege, not a right. We regulate it, as we should. We tell people to wear their seatbelts. We tell people not to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and we already tell them they cannot text while driving. All are reasonable limitations. And police tell us that a ban on hand-held calling while driving will make it much easier to enforce our existing distracted-driving and no-texting laws.

Critics of this legislation tell us we cannot legislate common sense. They suggest this is just another example of government intrusion into our personal lives, another intrusion of the “nanny state.” We respectfully disagree.

Many of us have a strong libertarian streak, but as the saying goes, “My right to extend my fist ends at the tip of your nose.”

If you choose to put yourself in harm’s way, that is one thing, and maybe we should give people leeway to do so. But when the danger and the damage extend to others, that is a different story. Remember, we are not talking about just a fist – we are talking about a 2-ton projectile speeding 50, 60 or 70 mph down the highway.

Over 2,000 accidents and over a dozen deaths. We can do better.

We have the power to stop absolutely preventable accidents – that is good public policy.

We have the power to stop absolutely preventable fatalities – that is good public policy.

Fourteen other states have passed similar laws, and the number is growing. We should join them. States like California, Arkansas and New York have all seen fewer deaths on the highway since passing this common-sense measure.

Some say that modern life as we know it will cease to exist if this bill becomes law in Maine. Lawyers, real estate agents and salespeople won’t be able to earn a living. Parents won’t be able to stay in touch with their children.

We respectfully suggest that is not so. This law specifically permits hands-free use of the cellphone. Many cars are now equipped with Bluetooth and there are inexpensive alternatives costing little as $15, all of which will allow people to make and receive calls and have both hands free to actually steer the car.

Again, this bill would absolutely allow the use of a variety of hands-free technology for making and receiving calls while driving. Yes, that practice is dangerous, too, but that should not stop us from at least taking this incremental step.

Our bill to make Maine highways safer is now before the Legislature.

We have a chance to make travel in our hometowns and throughout the state measurably safer at little or no inconvenience to people. Life will go on, but more people will get safely to where they are going. We hope that our colleagues in the Legislature will embrace this opportunity.

— Special to the Press Herald