March 10, 2010

Maine law puts focus on drivers' distraction

DAVID HENCH

— By

Staff Writer

Eating a bowl of cereal. Using a curling iron. Checking e-mail. Reading a manuscript while speeding -- in a school zone.

It seems almost every police officer has a story about drivers who do unusual and inappropriate things when they should have their eyes and attention on the road.

Later this week, officers will get a new tool to ticket those people -- for $25 to $500 -- and come down hard on drivers who crash because of text-messaging or other distractions.

But police don't envision a crackdown on people who use their cell phones or GPS units responsibly.

''We're not going to be out there looking in the windows, seeing if somebody is drinking a cup of coffee or talking on a cell phone, pulling people over for those sorts of things,'' said Maine State Police Lt. Walter Grzyb, who oversees troopers in Androscoggin, Cumberland and Oxford counties.

''The intent of the law is to have some recourse if you see some sort of driving behavior that's creating a potential hazard,'' he said. ''If somebody is driving down the road with their head in their lap texting while all over the road, that's something you may be able to take some action on.''

The law also will be useful after a crash, when somebody says they were trying to retrieve a compact disc from the floor when they went off the road.

The law will take effect Saturday, as will most other laws passed in the last legislative session.

It is drawing national attention as the White House and Congress look for ways to reduce crashes attributable to the growing use of electronic devices in cars.

Maine's law drew some support from people who were frustrated by the inherent dangers of drivers talking on cell phones, something that may be getting as common as listening to the radio.

WATCHING 'GILMORE GIRLS'

But what galvanized support and prompted Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, to push for the new law was a driver who was stopped by a trooper at a Maine Turnpike tollbooth for watching an episode of ''Gilmore Girls'' on her computer.

The bill at one point would have exempted cell phones and GPS units, but the final version makes no mention of specific devices. Instead, it is aimed at the act of driving and whether any other activity, regardless of what it is, interferes with that, Diamond said.

''Hopefully, once the education part of this reaches most of the community, the individuals realize this can be enforced and will be enforced,'' Diamond said. ''It really is intended to be a deterrent.''

The law says a driver who gets in an accident or commits another traffic violation while doing something that could reasonably be expected to impair their ability to drive safely is guilty of ''failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle.''

Diamond said he has been invited to a U.S. Department of Transportation seminar at the end of this month as officials seek a model policy aimed at reducing the number of crashes caused by drivers using electronic devices.

''They're interested in ours because we didn't try to outlaw any technology. We simply went after the end result -- distraction,'' Diamond said.

Congressional hearings may be held. Some Democrats have said they want states to ban texting while driving or forfeit federal highway funds.

A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that dialing a cell phone or reaching for an electronic device makes the risk of collision several times greater than otherwise.

Distraction can be dangerous, even deadly.

Last year, Kimberly Gignac reached into the center console of her minivan for her ringing cell phone. When she looked up, it was too late to avoid hitting Alan Morin, who was riding his motorcycle on Route 202.

The Little League coach was killed in the crash and Gignac was charged with manslaughter.

In 1999, a driver was trying to keep his dog from getting into a cooler in the back of his van when he went off the road and hit Stephen King, nearly killing the author.

''I've seen fatal accidents that are really unexplained,'' said Grzyb, of the state police. ''You don't see speed as a factor, or alcohol. Two cars hit head-on on a straight road, or a car going off the road. That isn't proof in itself, but I have no doubt in my mind things like cell phones and text paging have contributed to these sorts of accidents.''

Cumberland County Chief Deputy Kevin Joyce said it's still not clear how the new law will play out in the field.

Enforcement will be largely at the officers' discretion, he said, and ''it's going to be kind of a learning curve.''

Enforcement also will depend on how judges treat the charge and what proof they will expect.

HOPING TO CURB MULTI-TASKING

The jury is still out on how effective the law will be in getting drivers to pay more attention to the road, Joyce said.

''In the daylight, in certain circumstances, you may be able to see a violation of being distracted if a person has something in their hands and is all over the roadway,'' he said. ''At night, if they're all over the roadway, whatever they were distracted by may or may not be obvious to the officer.''

Joyce said the problem of distracted drivers didn't begin with cell phones, although it seems more prevalent now.

''We've had AM-FM radios in the car and people are always changing the station,'' he said. ''There was always a time when you were reading a map, trying to figure out where you're going.''

Joyce remembers stopping one driver who was weaving from side to side, sure it was a sign of drunken driving. Instead, the man was grabbing slices from the pizza box in the passenger seat.

Joyce hopes the law will help curb some of drivers' most egregious multi-tasking.

''It takes care of the real gross things that would shock your conscience,'' he said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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