State and local law enforcement officials say a change in Maine’s distracted driving law could make finding offenders easier and help change a culture that accepts dangerous driving habits.

After Sept. 19, anyone caught talking, texting or using a handheld device while driving, even at a stoplight or in stopped traffic, could be subject to fines of $50 to $250. Gov. Janet Mills signed L.D. 165, “An Act To Prohibit the Use of Handheld Phones and Devices While Driving,” into law on June 27.

Distracted driving has been illegal since 2009, and texting while driving has been illegal since 2011, but police have had trouble enforcing the texting law, said Maine State Police Lt. Bruce Scott. Law enforcement had difficulty proving a driver was texting instead of engaging in a permitted use, such as navigating or changing music.

Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills called the new law a “breath of fresh air.” He said some cases of distracted driving have been dropped once they go to court because it is hard to prove a person is texting without going through the driver’s phone message archive.

“It’s right up there with drinking and driving (in terms of danger),” Mills said. “We don’t want people distracted driving, period.”

The new law, Scott said, will be easier to enforce because officers just need to see the device in someone’s hand and won’t have to rely on “he said, she said” arguments to get convictions.

“It’s just going to take away that argument,” he said. “We’re going to photograph you when you’re holding your device (and say) we saw their thumb manipulating it.”

Mills said his department conducted 212 details designed to detect drivers texting in 2017 and 2018, using 856 staff hours. Officers stopped 918 cars, issued 332 warnings, and 681 summonses or arrests were made.

This year, Augusta police have conducted 58 details, using 233 staff hours. During that time, officers stopped 220 cars, issued 33 warnings and 207 summonses and arrests. Distracted-driving details are funded by federal grants, Mills said.

Staff Sgt. Frank Hatch, of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, said it’s challenging for some deputies to see whether a driver is using a cellphone because the deputy might be passing the driver at high speed. Hatch said some details use a deputy to watch for drivers using their cellphones, who then radios ahead so another can pull the driver over.

Now, Scott said, the details are going to be easier because stopping alleged violators will not require the same burden of proof that the current law requires.

Mills agreed, and said violators of distracted driving laws will be as easy to see as people not wearing seat belts. He said seat belt details are straightforward; if you see someone not wearing a seat belt, the person is breaking the law.

Scott said he expects the law to be enforced aggressively within the first two years, but that violations will taper off as the culture changes. He said state police have struggled with distracted driving within their ranks, with troopers using their phones and keeping their onboard laptops open while driving.

He said state police eventually installed software that turns off the laptop’s display at speeds higher than 10 mph.

“We’ve changed that culture, but it took that extra step,” Scott said. “It took us 10 years to really change the culture and behavior.”

The new law could be that extra step for other drivers, he said. The culture around drunken driving has changed so much that people will “get into fistfights” before letting a loved one drive drunk.

“This is just another tool in the tool belt to give law enforcement to discourage (distracted driving),” he said. “We want people to get back to just driving.”

Scott said technology could play a bigger part in discouraging distracted driving. Some mobile phones offer settings that delay notifications when a vehicle is moving over certain speeds, but those settings can be disabled easily. He said technology companies have no incentive to change their policies or practices until federal law puts pressure on them.

Mills said Augusta police also participate in educational exercises to discourage distracted driving, such as taking vehicles that crashed during distracted driving to schools to illustrate the worst-case scenarios.

About 3,200 people were killed nationwide in 2017 in crashes caused by distracted driving – about 9 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Some experts think the number is underreported because some of those who crashed their cars would not admit having used their phones just before a crash.

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