AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage signed legislation Friday that outlaws text messaging while driving, earning the state a salute from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called it “a crucial step” toward saving lives on the highways.

Maine’s law is likely to take effect in September, 90 days after the current legislative session ends. It sets minimum fines at $100 for texting while driving.

Maine becomes the 33rd state, along with the District of Columbia and Guam, which has banned text messaging by all drivers, according to LaHood. Eight states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have prohibited all hand-held cell phone use while driving.

LaHood, who has called distracted driving “a deadly epidemic on America’s roads,” applauded Maine for passing a strong texting law.

“Distracted driving kills thousands of people every year on our roads and injures hundreds of thousands more,” LaHood said in a statement. “By signing this tough texting ban into law today, Governor LePage has taken a crucial step to improve safety and save lives on Maine roads.”

Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the state Public Safety Department, said police officers frequently see drivers texting, and while he was not aware of any statistics showing the number of accidents due to texting in Maine, he’s sure they happen.

The new law, which was approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature, succeeds a distracted-driving law that was enacted two years ago.

Its sponsor, Sen. Bill Diamond, said that law didn’t go far enough and he submitted the legislation just targeting texting this year.

“Texting is addictive, and doing it while you are driving is very dangerous,” said Diamond, D-Windham. He hopes making it a violation will keep people from doing it.

LePage said drivers are seen all too often with one hand on the wheel and their attention diverted from the road to a cell phone.

“While many motorists are able to multitask as they drive, the safest driving is done when drivers direct full attention to the road and their surroundings. The intent of this bill is to improve safety for everyone using Maine roads,” the governor said.

Nearly 5,500 people in the U.S. were killed in distracted-driving accidents in 2009.

In a poll LaHood released earlier this year, 63 percent of drivers under 30 acknowledged using a hand-held phone while behind the wheel.


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