Police throughout Maine are preparing for swift, widespread enforcement of a new law that takes effect this week and bans the use of handheld cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.

Starting Thursday, police will begin writing tickets for anyone caught holding or otherwise manipulating a cellphone as they drive, or even while they wait at a red light. Authorities say there will be no phase-in or warning period.

Police only need to see a cellphone in a driver’s hand to initiate a stop and write a $50 ticket for someone’s first offense. Maine’s new statute is in line with laws already on the books in New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island, making Massachusetts the only New England state without a handheld cellphone ban. A total of 19 other states and the District of Columbia also bar cellphone use for anyone behind the wheel.

Police say drivers should be prepared for hard-nosed enforcement of a measure that many have said is overdue and will likely prove easier to enforce than a longstanding prohibition on texting while driving, and a separate umbrella statute that prohibits distracted driving, including by using a cellphone.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of summonses written over the first, say, 90 days,” said Maine State Police Lt. Bruce Scott, who heads the traffic safety division.  “Then people are going to start finding their way through this and that they have to comply. The real goal is to change the driving behavior, getting back to just driving. There’s a clear line. If I have to pick (the phone) up, it’s a violation. If I have to manipulate it, I’m in violation.”

The difficulty of enforcing current laws was on display during a recent weekday morning on the Maine Turnpike, where Trooper Patrick Flanagan was on a four-hour distracted driving detail.

As he cruised north in the center lane in an unmarked SUV, Flanagan watched drivers as they passed him, looking for someone fiddling with a phone. When a woman in a Ford SUV bearing New York plates passed Flanagan, he saw her pick up her phone from the center console and look down at it, taking her eyes off the road.

He pulled the SUV over, but the woman was adamant. She was not texting, she said, and unlocked the screen to show him. The driver left with a verbal warning, because there was no primary driving infraction that would support a distracted driving ticket.

“That’s where the gray area comes in,” Flanagan said. “I would have been able to write her (a ticket) all day with the new law.”

A few minutes later, Flanagan spotting a black Nissan Maxima approaching him from behind at 86 mph. Flanagan watched as the car drifted a few inches across the dotted lane divider before the driver corrected. Flanagan drove alongside the Nissan, and watched as the man’s eyes darted up and down from his phone, to the road and back again.

Once pulled over to the side of the road, the driver admitted to the trooper that he was reading a text message, Flanagan said. The trooper wrote him two citations, for speed and distraction, totaling $248.

“I typically don’t have people be so honest with me,” Flanagan said. “He basically admitted he was reading a text message.”

When the new law goes into effect, Flanagan expects a surge of tickets immediately. “This is not going to be a ‘spread the word’ detail,” he said. “It’s (going to be) zero to a hundred.”

The law marks a shift from years of legislative hand-wringing and disapproval of similar bills, which were at times viewed by lawmakers as an effort to legislate common sense. Former Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a similar measure in 2017 after it passed both houses of the Legislature, calling it an attempt at “social engineering.”

Others have argued the law is overdue.

Bridget Hester, 32, of Falmouth said she’s been weaning herself from using the phone in recent weeks. She said the law makes sense to her, especially considering her vehicle was rear-ended as she sat at a stop sign this summer. She thinks it was because of a distracted driver.

“I had been sitting at the stop sign for like 30 seconds,” Hester said.

Using phones behind the wheel is believed to be one of the leading causes of distracted-driving crashes, which killed at least 3,160 people on American roads in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The new law is designed to force people to either put cellphones and other electronic devices down while behind the wheel, or utilize voice-activated commands or other hands-free technology, such as in-dash displays that link up to a phone and are  integrated into the controls of most newer vehicles.

Using a hand-held phone while stopped in traffic or at a red light is also illegal under the new law. Drivers must pull off and park in a safe area to make a call or write a text.

There are some exceptions. Using a phone while driving to dial 911 is also permitted, and there is a carve-out for people who require the use of medical devices, such as insulin pumps or heart monitors. School bus drivers and commercial truck drivers are also exempt, as long as they are using the phone or electronic device as part of their job duties, and in line with federal rules.

The Legislature estimated that about 1,100 violations will be written by June 30, 2020, and roughly 5,500 tickets between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.  By comparison, police wrote about 1,600 tickets for texting while driving in 2018. More than 1,300 convictions resulted.

Maine could take in $517,000 in fines each year for the next three years, according to a fiscal analysis of the proposal. That revenue will mostly be directed to a new permanent Maine Department of Transportation fund that can be used to pay the salary of a new clerk in the violations bureau to handle the new volume of tickets. The remainder can be spent on transportation-related projects and services, according to the law.

The state collected $8.8 million in traffic fines in 2018, according to the Maine Judicial Branch’s annual report.

Finding violators shouldn’t be a big problem, based on the widespread use of cellphones by Maine motorists, according to state data.

When compared nationally, Maine drivers are slightly more likely to use a cellphone while driving, according to a 2018 study in which researchers directly observed more than 13,500 drivers at 80 locations around the state. The study found that 6.3 percent of drivers observed in the study were  holding a phone to their ear, wearing ear buds or manipulating a phone. Across the U.S., the average is 5.4 percent.

The study found that motorists most likely to be seen using a phone are women, younger drivers and weekday commuters. Men, older motorists and weekend drivers are less likely to use  a cellphone behind the wheel, according to the study.

For people whose vehicles do not have steering wheel controls to activate Bluetooth hands-free technology, police are encouraging the purchase of a phone mount or cradle that can be attached to the dashboard or center console.

While the phone is secured in the mount, motorists will be allowed one touch, tap or swipe to activate a hands-free feature, as long as it does not interfere with the view of the road. But pressing multiple buttons on a dash-mounted phone to dial a number or send a text will still be illegal.

That also means drivers may no longer type a GPS address manually while driving or scroll for a song on iTunes or Spotify if it takes more than a single touch to perform.

Dean Barger, 54, of Falmouth said he felt the brunt of a similar law a few years ago before he moved from New York City, where a state law similar to Maine’s has been on the books since 2001. Barger had his cellphone resting on his knee and a GPS app open. After he glanced down at the phone while stopped in Manhattan traffic, he heard a knock on his window. A police officer standing nearby saw him and wrote him a ticket.

“It’s just the temptation of being visually stimulated,” Barger said.

Young drivers have additional limits. Anyone who is younger than 18 or driving with a learner’s permit is still forbidden from any cellphone use while driving, even if the phone is equipped with hands-free features.

In addition to the new law, police will still be able to write tickets under the two existing state laws which prohibit texting while driving, which has been illegal in Maine since 2011, and is punishable by a $325 fine, according to the Maine violations bureau.

Police can also cite a driver for any activity that is not necessary to the operation of the motor vehicle and that causes a distraction. That statute, failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle, carries a penalty of $134, although it is a secondary violation that can only be enforced when the motorist is found to have broken another traffic law, such as speeding or drifting across lanes without signaling.

Both those laws had exceptions and loopholes. Motorists could claim in court that they were dialing a phone number and not texting, and unless someone admitted to the crime, it was up to a judge as to whom to believe. Police also could not force someone at the roadside to turn over his or her phone unless the person consented to the search, so it was hard to prove someone was texting. 

“In our conversations with police officers, and we have a lot of them, we heard again and again that the old law was unenforceable,” said James Tasse, assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “There were all kinds of loopholes that allowed people to have these devices in their hands. So simply saying you cannot have a device in your hand makes it much simpler.”

In Westbrook, Police Chief Janine Roberts has directed her staff to invest in Bluetooth devices for all police cruisers, so officers can be in compliance on day one. Her officers are also partnering with local businesses to offer motorists free assistance  from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the police station to install or set up Bluetooth devices that are in compliance.

“This law is for everyone,” Roberts said. “Including police officers.”

Dr. Michael Rifkin, who sits on the bicycle coalition’s board and rides about 1,500 miles each year around his home in Greene, testified in support of the legislation before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. Rifkin has been hit twice by cars on his regular routes around his home, and in the most recent incident in 2016, he suffered a concussion and a serious injury to his ankle.

The driver in that incident said he was  fatigued – not texting – but Rifkin said he learned the hard way what can happen when drivers get distracted.

“As someone who has experienced the consequences of distracted driving, I am committed to making sure that others understand the full extent of the problem,” Rifkin said in his testimony before lawmakers. “People need to understand that multitasking isn’t efficient. It is deadly and destructive.”

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