SKOWHEGAN — A video of a woman driving a vehicle and talking on a cellphone while a toddler wearing no seat belt plays in the front passenger seat has sparked a public outcry on social media and police are investigating.

The woman who recorded the video Wednesday evening, Lauren Hartsock, posted it in a public Facebook group called Skowhegan Neighborhood Watch and then notified Skowhegan police.

“I was waving my arms out the window, I was yelling, and she kept going,” Hartsock said Thursday. She said the driver was “not aware of her surroundings at all, she didn’t even see me.”

The video and a subsequent post by the Somerset County Sheriff’s Facebook have blown up on Facebook. The original video garnered more than 250 “likes” and about 100 comments before an administrator eventually blocked comments. The sheriff’s office post had more than 500 “likes,” 65 comments and 70 shares.

The sheriff’s Facebook post, written by Detective Mike Ross, said that while the video was troubling, some of the comments posted under it were equally so.

“I just read the beginning of a real-life lynch mob, and that is concerning,” Ross wrote. “First of all, a child not wearing a seatbelt is a traffic violation, and is not an arrestable offense, so let’s get that out in the open. It is certainly not an offense that is punishable by death, so let’s put the torches and pitch forks away. There may be some other issues here, and that is something that the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office, and Skowhegan PD need to talk about.”

The Somerset County Sheriff’s Office is assisting with the Skowhegan police investigation. Somerset Chief Deputy Jim Ross said his department was called in to help locate the driver and they traced the vehicle to a residence in Bingham, but no one would come to the door. He said that information was passed on to Skowhegan police.

Ross said police are not releasing the name of the driver, who would not face immediate criminal charges but rather a traffic violation. Attempts to reach the driver for comment were not successful.

Hartsock said she was in the passenger seat of a car driven by her wife on Madison Avenue. She said they were sitting at a red light when her wife noticed the unbuckled toddler and the driver on the phone. The video shows the other driver accelerating and the unbuckled boy falling back into the front seat.

Hartsock said she tried to get the driver’s attention several times, both by pulling up next to the minivan she was driving and also pulling in front of it. The driver with the toddler finally turned at the Rite Aid on Madison Avenue. Facebook users posted a number of comments criticizing the driver for putting the young boy at risk.

One commenter wrote: “This is how kids die. It’s happened more times anyone can count. Not a situation to be taken lightly, especially when caught red handed. This is more than just a traffic violation, but the police can only do so much. This is something that (the Department of Health and Human Services) needs to handle.”

Another wrote: “I don’t want to see her kids get taken from her but I do think that something serious needs to happen so she doesn’t make poor judgment when it comes to her child’s safety again.”

Some online commenters took issue with the sheriff’s office post, saying the driver should face more than a traffic ticket, which drew a response: “All we are saying is that people need to relax a bit, be patient, and let the police investigate this incident. Again, there may be more than just a traffic violation here, but that is up to the District Attorney’s Office to decide.”

Hartsock said she was glad people saw the video and commented. She said she wasn’t trying to shame or humiliate the other driver, but wanted to get the video out there so hopefully the woman won’t do it again.

Hartsock said if the driver had been in a crash or had to stop suddenly, the young boy could have been hurt.

“This is not OK; it’s child endangerment,” she said.

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

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