It was a carefree Sunday afternoon. I’d just dropped my daughter off at the train station in Saco and, as she boarded the Boston-bound Downeaster, I headed back up Route 112 in my pickup truck reflecting on her visit, how proud I am of her, how the joys of being a parent never really end …

Then I almost got killed.

As I headed into a long curve in the road, another pickup coming the other way failed to navigate the bend and instead sliced across my lane toward the nearby woods.

Instinctively, I crossed the center line to stay out of its way.

Then, a split second from impact with the first tree, the driver lurched back onto the pavement, unaware that I was by now going north in the southbound lane trying to avoid him.

He crossed back across the road diagonally and returned to his lane. I turned sharply back into mine. Our side mirrors missed colliding by an inch or two.


As he passed, I saw that he had only his left hand on the steering wheel. In his right hand, a cellphone.

He kept going, well above the speed limit. I pulled over, shaking like a leaf.

The whole thing lasted no more than five seconds.

I flashed back to my brush with disaster Tuesday after Gov. Paul LePage told WVOM radio that he planned to veto a bill banning the use of cellphones and other handheld devices while driving in Maine.

Why? Because, LePage said, this bill (and another banning tobacco sales to anyone under age 21) is nothing more than (cue the gasps) “social engineering.”

He added, “I don’t believe that social engineering a society is going to create a good society.”


Let’s pump the brakes on that one for a minute.

The Oxford Living Dictionaries define social engineering as “the use of centralized planning in an attempt to manage social change and regulate the future development and behaviour of a society.”

In other words, social engineering is not, by definition, a bad thing. With it, we evolve as a society. Without it, we can easily end up in a ditch.

Yet here we find ourselves once again, stuck with a governor who throws around fancy terms like a toddler plays with the heirloom china.

He’s oblivious to not just what “social engineering” really means in the context of rapidly changing technology but also to his critical role in ensuring that nothing (or no one) gets broken as cellphones consume larger and larger chunks of our time and attention.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and passed by strong (but not veto-proof) majorities in both the House and Senate, picks up where the current ban on texting while driving leaves off.


That prohibition, while well-intentioned, has had limited success in making the roads safer. Here’s why:

Let’s assume that the guy who almost creamed me that day was texting. And let’s assume a police officer saw the whole thing and pulled him over.

“Were you texting?” the cop would inevitably ask.

“No sir,” the guy would inevitably reply. “Uhmm … a bee distracted me! That’s right, a big fat yellowjacket! You should have seen him, officer – he was huge!”

LePage wrongly claimed this week that the officer in such a situation could simply confiscate the driver’s cellphone and check for recent activity.

Not true – at least not without a cumbersome court order. And as a lover of the U.S. Constitution, including its Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure, you’d think LePage might already know that.


LePage also argued that “there’s all kinds of other issues that are out there in driving,” such as people eating a sandwich or drinking a cup of coffee or women putting on makeup in the morning.

If the texting law and an existing distracted driving law aren’t working, he said, “let’s figure out why they’re not working and make them work.”

Don’t look now, folks, but it sounds like the governor just called for a little social engineering.

The reason the current laws aren’t working is because they contain a loophole big enough to drive two pickups through: The law still permits talking on a cellphone, dialing on a cellphone, checking a cellphone to see who’s calling you, leaving a voice mail, navigating Google Maps and other activities that don’t meet the narrow definition of “text messaging.”

All of those things can be at least as distracting as texting. What’s worse, they provide an instant – and legal – excuse for having a cellphone in hand when things suddenly go bad.

As in, “No, officer, I wasn’t texting. I was dialing up my buddy’s 10-digit number in California.”


What, pray tell, is the difference?

As for LePage’s claim that other things besides cellphones can distract drivers and cellphone use therefore should not be banned, I would offer what I’ll call the “propane rebuttal.”

If you own an outdoor gas grill, you probably already know how retailers tend to freak out if you walk into their establishment toting an empty, 20-gallon propane tank in search of a refill.

Why? Because propane is extremely dangerous in enclosed places and, as the warning signs proclaim at the store entrance, all tanks should be left outside.

Now, matches also can be dangerous. Ditto for cigarette lighters. So why are they allowed inside stores when propane tanks aren’t?

Because propane poses a far greater risk. Just as handheld cellphones, regardless of how they’re being used, threaten public safety far more than a handheld cup of coffee or a sandwich.


And we all know it.

In a 2015 survey by AAA, 80 percent of the drivers polled said it was completely unacceptable to text or email while driving. Yet 42 percent said they’d read a text or email while driving in the past 30 days, while 31 percent admitted they’d typed one.

Meaning they are deterred neither by their own common sense nor, more significantly, by current laws. That crazy guy in the pickup is still out there, cellphone in hand, a menace to anyone who crosses his path.

So how do we end this madness?

Police can only do so much – and they’re not shy about saying so.

Thus, with veto-override day fast approaching, enhanced safety along Maine’s highways and byways now hinges on our last line of defense – our lawmakers.

Also known as social engineers.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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