The Maine Legislature passed a bill Tuesday that would make it against the law to use a hand-held cellphone or other device while driving.

Attempts to pass similar legislation aimed at curbing distracted driving failed in 2015. Maine law now prohibits minors and those with learner’s permits from using any hand-held device, but allows it for adults, although the state has a broad distracted-driving law and a law prohibiting text messaging while driving.

The House passed the bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, on a vote of 85-60, while the Senate approved the bill last week, voting 21-14 in favor. A violation carries a $75 fine for a first offense and a $150 fine for a second offense within three years. The bill also has provisions that could lead to license suspension for repeat offenders. The new bill would replace current law and clarify that any use of a hand-held device behind the wheel would be illegal.

If the bill passes into law, Maine will join 15 other states that ban the use of hand-held electronic communication devices. In New England, Maine would join Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire in banning hand-held devices, while the legislatures in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are contemplating similar bills.

The bill allows hands-free operation of a device and includes an exception for using a hand-held device to call police or rescue services in an emergency. But the exception does not apply to text messaging.

And while lawmakers suggested giving law enforcement an exception, the state police testified that they didn’t want any special treatment, said Rep. Bettyann Sheats, D-Auburn, a member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

A fiscal impact statement on the bill shows it would cost the state’s court system about $65,000 a year to administer, but would generate about $1 million a year in new fine revenue to the state, starting in 2018.

The bill faces procedural votes before it goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature. LePage previously signed a bill that prohibited texting and driving, but his office did not respond to a question Tuesday about whether he would sign or veto this bill. It takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to override a veto, and neither the Senate nor the House reached that level of support when they passed the measure.

In April, Pat Moody, the public affairs director for AAA of Northern New England, told lawmakers during a Transportation Committee hearing that an AAA review of dozens of traffic safety studies suggests that any use of a mobile device increases the crash risk by four times, while the use of a hand-held phone, especially if it is being used to text, can increase the crash risk by a factor of 23.

“This legislation addresses the big picture – that distracted driving is a concern exhibited on Maine’s roadways,” Moody said. “Our experience with drunk driving and other serious safety issues tells us discouraging dangerous behaviors requires a multipronged approach: good laws, effective enforcement, and effective public education.”

Maj. Chris Grotton, with the Maine State Police, said that distracted driving causes about 40 percent of all crashes in Maine, about 14,400 each year.

“Distracted driving is a huge issue across our nation and in the state of Maine,” Grotton said. He noted that about 3,000 people lose their lives to distracted drivers every year in the U.S. – about nine people every day.

Opponents in the House argued Tuesday that banning hand-held cellphones will not solve the problem of dangerous drivers because people have so many other distractions in their cars, including food, children or other passengers. Others argued that cellphones are an important tool for many business owners – and lawmakers – who must drive long distances in a large, sparsely populated state.

“This mobile phone has become the most important ingredient in my business,” said Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, a contractor and builder. “It is my office.”

But supporters of the bill noted that police officers asked for it because Maine’s existing ban on texting-while-driving is difficult to enforce and does not address the distractions caused by people holding phones behind the wheel. Several lawmakers recounted incidents of fatal vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.

“It is not an economic issue, it is a safety issue,” said Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner. “It is not about multitasking, it is about safety.”

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this story.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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