Trish Malloch sees it all the time. She’ll be driving on the Maine Turnpike between the Kennebunk area and her home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and spot another driver tapping away on a hand-held device, barely paying attention to the road.

“Some people sit in their cars and think they’re in the living room,” Malloch said.

Since Maine passed a law prohibiting texting and driving in 2011, the number of citations issued each year by the Maine State Police for that offense has skyrocketed. In almost five years, the number of tickets increased from 48 violations to 866 in 2016.

But the number of texting and driving tickets accounts for only 3 percent of all traffic citations state police issued last year. Public safety officials say prosecuting drivers for that violation is difficult – although new enforcement efforts and a legislative push to ban hand-held devices in cars are underway – and they are annoyed by a lack of data that prove distracted driving is a serious safety problem.

In 2016, an estimated 750 drivers in Maine got into crashes blamed on texting, using an electronic device or talking on a cellphone, representing 1.4 percent of all drivers involved in crashes, according to state data. Of those 750 drivers, only 365 were texting or dialing on their cellphones at the time of the crash, the highest number since 2010, but still less than 1 percent of all operators in crashes.

Those figures don’t reflect the extent of the problem, say law enforcement officials, noting that distracted drivers are everywhere, easy to pick out by their bowed heads as they scan cellphones, GPS devices and other electronics.

It is a frustrating disconnect for law enforcement and policymakers, who believe the state’s own data are incomplete.

“The bottom line, those numbers you see in Maine crash data, it doesn’t reflect the whole story,” said Duane Brunell, manager of the Maine Department of Transportation’s safety office. “We clearly believe it is underreported. To what degree, I don’t know.”

MANY DRIVERS ACKNOWLEDGE TAKING RISKS

Evidence that distracted driving, especially distraction from cellphones, is a major hazard has been piling up for years. Nationwide, distracted driving was involved in 14 percent of all traffic accidents in 2015, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Approximately 3,500 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes, about 10 percent of total traffic fatalities.

A driver checks her phone while navigating Temple Street in Portland. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Experts say texting or using a device is especially dangerous because it involves cognitive, visual and manual distractions that take a driver’s attention off the road. A recent report from Cambridge Mobile Telematics, based on data from hundreds of thousands of drivers, showed phone distraction occurred during 52 percent of trips that resulted in a crash. In 2013, researchers in New York reported texting was a greater hazard to teen drivers than drinking alcohol. In late March, a 20-year-old driver admitted to texting when he crashed a pickup truck into a church bus in Texas, killing 13 people, according to news reports.

Under Maine law, people under age 18 are not allowed to use a cellphone while driving.

Despite awareness of the danger, lots of drivers acknowledge taking risks. In a 2015 survey, AAA found that 80 percent of drivers said texting and emailing when driving was completely unacceptable, but 42 percent reported having read a text or email in the past 30 days and 31 percent reported typing one while driving.

FOR VIOLATORS, IT’S EASY TO AVOID FINES

To address the growing problem, the Maine Legislature in 2011 outlawed texting and driving, but enforcement of the ban has been difficult.

Although the law forbids drivers from writing or reading texts or emails, it doesn’t prevent them from using devices to scroll through music, look up directions or dial a phone number, said Lt. Bruce Scott, head of the Maine State Police traffic safety unit. First-time violators of the ban are fined at least $250, and repeat offenders risk a $500 fine and license suspension. It’s easy to avoid that hefty fine, though.

In many cases, when a driver is pulled over on suspicion of texting and driving, he or she can claim to have been using the device for something else. Unless an officer has solid proof that texting was involved, the driver gets off or maybe gets a ticket for distracted driving, a lesser violation that carries a penalty of about $137, Scott said.

“We’ll pick another violation, but we are not going to get texting without really solid evidence or a confession,” Scott said. Police don’t have the right to seize a driver’s cellphone without a subpoena, and those are most often issued only in the cases of fatalities or severe accidents.

To overcome the problem, state police are experimenting with new tactics to catch offenders. Those include using two-officer details in unmarked vans and SUVs, one to drive and the other to survey nearby cars. State police also plan to station troopers in tractor-trailers, school buses, and in road construction crews to spot violators and radio them in to other troopers for apprehension. The new programs are funded with a $180,000 federal grant, Scott said.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to make this work,” Scott said. “The real struggle is that they can use their phone for legal reasons that is not a violation of the texting statute.”

‘IT IS OBVIOUS … MORE PEOPLE ARE TEXTING’

Lawmakers are pushing to close that loophole and toughen penalties on texting drivers.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who championed the texting ban, has sponsored L.D. 1089, which would outlaw using a hand-held device while driving, with a $75 fine for a first offense and $150 fine for subsequent offenses. The ban would not apply to dashboard-mounted devices, Diamond said. A 2015 bill restricting cellphone use in vehicles to hands-free devices was defeated in the House. Fourteen states, including New Hampshire and Connecticut, have bans on using hand-held devices while driving.

“I think it is obvious that more and more people are texting,” Diamond said. The problem isn’t confined to teens and young adults; it seems people of all ages are hooked on their phones, he added. “It really is everybody now. The only way to stop the texting is not to allow a device to be held while driving.”

It’s one hand on the wheel, one hand on the phone for this motorist on Temple Street. Staff photo by Derek Davis

A bill that would have imposed a three-month license suspension for texting and driving was unanimously voted down by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee last week. Committee members felt the penalty for a first violation was too extreme, said the panel’s House chairman, Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham.

Dan Burke, a Freeport resident who testified in favor of the bill, said he was disappointed by the committee’s vote. Once an avid motorcyclist, Burke sold his Harley-Davidson after a couple of near-misses with drivers who were talking on cellphones.

“This isn’t fair,” Burke said. “It is too damned dangerous on the roads.”

He’s since deeply researched distraction behind the wheel, and is appalled by the scale of the problem.

“When someone gets creamed by someone talking on the phone or texting, it is just as bad as getting hit by a drunk driver,” he said.

DOUBTS ABOUT SELF-REPORTED DATA

There is scant evidence from crash reports to prove distracted driving from hand-held devices is putting Maine drivers in danger.

In 2016, 50,450 drivers were involved in crashes, and roughly 7 percent were distracted, the vast majority by something other than a cellphone.

About 2,700 drivers were found to be distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle, almost four times the number of drivers who reported being distracted by an electronic device. Only 21 drivers were talking on a cellphone or using a hands-free device when they crashed, two-tenths of 1 percent of the total number of drivers.

Public safety officials believe the data are skewed because, with the exception of fatal or serious injury accidents, distracted driving is self-reported.

“The issue is, distracted driving is always going to be underreported,” said Sgt. Darren Foster, who oversees the Maine State Police crash analysis unit. “Unless they tell us what they were doing, we have no way to know. The only cases where it can be proven will be in fatal or severe injury crashes when we can get a subpoena for cell (phone) records.”

State police believe distracted driving is responsible for closer to 40 percent of all crashes in the state. That is what crash data showed before the state changed how it reported crashes in 2011.

Prior to the change, officers would report distraction in a crash if they suspected it was a causal factor, said Scott, from the Maine State Police. The new form asks officers to pick a specific kind of distraction, like talking on a cellphone or interacting with a passenger. The intent was to create more complete and detailed data by adding categories of distraction, but the change has had the opposite effect, he said.

Now officers are reluctant to pick a specific category if they can’t prove a driver was distracted, which masks the true extent of the problem, Scott said.

Self-reporting by drivers has also declined, he said. Now that there are hefty penalties for driving while distracted, people are less likely to admit it.

“The statistics don’t back up what we know, and we are trying to figure it out,” Scott said.

Underreporting is a national problem, said Deborah Trombley, a senior program manager with the National Safety Council, a health and safety nonprofit. A nationwide 2013 council study of crash reports from 2009-2011 in which there was strong evidence of cellphone use found that distracted driving was underreported in half the cases in 2011, and distraction was coded in only 8 percent of cases in 2009.

“What Maine is facing is not unique to Maine, it is happening all over the country,” Trombley said. “We all know it is happening, we don’t know how bad it is,” she added.

“Just because there is an absence of data doesn’t mean there is an absence of a problem.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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