Officer Rocco Navarro of the South Portland Police Department’s traffic unit. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — As he approached the busy intersection at Broadway and Waterman Drive, Officer Rocco Navarro slowed his cruiser and glanced to his left at each car he passed. The first three drivers stared ahead, hands on the wheel.

But the fourth was looking down at the cellphone in her hand and tapping on the screen. When Navarro pulled her over, the woman admitted she had been placing her Starbucks order. He gave her a warning.

Such interactions occur again and again as police enforce Maine’s hands-free driving law. Since it took effect in late 2019, more than 3,000 people each year have received tickets and far more have been issued warnings.

Some say the potential consequences aren’t enough to deter the behavior, so one state lawmaker has proposed increasing the penalties.

“Pretty much everyone I stop for a phone violation knows they shouldn’t be using their phone,” said Navarro, whose work with the South Portland Police Department focuses on traffic enforcement.

Maine is one of 24 states that prohibit handheld phone use while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texting while driving is banned in all states except Missouri and Montana. In Maine, police need only to see a phone in a driver’s hand to initiate a stop and write a ticket. But if an officer can prove a driver was texting, the driver is subject to the much steeper fines of a texting ban passed eight years before the hands-free law.


A driver uses a cellphone while passing through an intersection in South Portland on Thursday. South Portland Police Officer Rocco Navarro pulled over the driver, who said they were ordering coffee, and gave a warning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Police officers across southern Maine say they still see people using their phones on a regular basis, particularly at red lights where drivers are scanning texts or scrolling social media.

“I’ve definitely seen a difference since it’s been prohibited, but it’s still commonplace to see people with phones in their hands,” said Lt. Bruce Scott, who oversees the Maine State Police traffic safety unit. “We’ve got a ways to go.”

This year, state lawmakers will consider a bill that would increase the penalty for using a handheld electronic device or cellphone while driving from $85 to $500 for a first offense and from $325 to $1,000 for a second offense. Under the proposal, drivers caught a third time would temporarily lose their license.

The bill, L.D. 145, is sponsored by Rep. Stanley Paige Zeigler, D-Montville, who said he was asked to submit it by a volunteer firefighter who believes increased fines would reduce crashes.

Using phones behind the wheel is believed to be one of the leading causes of distracted driving crashes, which killed 3,142 people on American roads in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The number of crashes involving distracted driving in Maine has declined only slightly in the past few years. Police say most involve cellphones, but drivers also can be distracted by other things that take their attention off the road.


Last year, there were 3,154 crashes with distracted driving listed as a factor, about 300 fewer than the year before, according to Maine Department of Transportation public data. More than half of those were rear-end collisions or sideswipes. Eleven were fatal and more than 1,100 caused injuries.

In the past decade, the vast majority of distracted driving crashes have taken place on dry roads in clear weather conditions.

“We cover crashes every day involving distracted driving,” Scott said. “It’s just not worth it. Leave the phone in the cradle, and don’t use it for anything unless you absolutely have to.”


Distracted driving is personal for Navarro.

In 2010, he parked his cruiser behind a disabled vehicle on the Casco Bay Bridge. He stepped out to check on the driver, then got back in his car. A minute later, a driver typing a message on his phone slammed into his cruiser at nearly 50 mph, shoving it into a barrier in the median.


Navarro woke up in the hospital and spent the next seven months recovering from serious injuries that he says put his law enforcement career in jeopardy. After he recovered and returned to work, the crash became a catalyst for passing the texting-while-driving ban that became law in 2011.

Officer Rocco Navarro’s cruiser was hit from behind by a driver using a cellphone in 2010. Courtesy of Rocco Navarro

“Everyone knows alcohol and drinking don’t mix. That’s universal,” he said. “It took a bunch of years to make the connection that phones and driving don’t mix.”

The texting ban was on the books for two years when lawmakers considered the bill to ban all handheld cellphone use. Many said it was long overdue and would be easier to enforce.

But the earliest effort failed to gain traction amid criticism that it was pointless to try to legislate common sense. In 2017, a similar measure passed both houses of the Legislature, but Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it, calling it an attempt at “social engineering.”

When the hands-free driving law finally went into effect on Sept. 19, 2019, police told drivers to be prepared for hard-nosed enforcement.

Drivers are allowed to use features on phones or electronic devices that can be activated with a single push, tap or swipe, but only if the device is secured to a mount or a cradle somewhere on the vehicle that does not interfere with the driver’s view of the roadway. A narrow exception in the law allows drivers – except those with provisional licenses – to hold their phones during emergencies while talking to law enforcement.


Drivers can, and are encouraged, to use hands-free calling systems with Bluetooth. But even then, phones can be a distraction, Navarro said.

“Your brain is focused on the next text message, the email you have to send or on Amazon. It takes your mind away from the road,” he said. “Let’s face it, people are addicted to their phones. A text goes off and they feel they have to look at it right then and there.”

Scott, from the state police traffic unit, saw that firsthand recently when he watched a driver scroll through Facebook at a red light. As the driver looked at his phone, cars in the next lane started moving forward, Scott said. Without looking up, the driver also moved forward and slammed into the stopped car in front of him.

Officer Rocco Navarro of South Portland Police Department’s traffic unit keeps an eye on passing traffic while making a stop on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Starting in December, Biddeford police conducted four special details to enforce the hands-free driving law. In one month, officers issued 76 citations to people holding their phones and 14 to people caught texting. One person received a ticket for conducting a Zoom meeting while driving near one of the city’s busiest intersections.

Many local law enforcement agencies are taking advantage of state and federal grants to fund these special details. Last year, state police staged 53 and issued 256 tickets for distracted driving, including 182 for using a handheld device.


Scarborough police ran an 11-month operation between October 2021 and September 2022 that stopped 900 vehicles and led to 40 tickets and 360 warnings.

When Scarborough police Sgt. Andrew Flynn is patrolling on his motorcycle, he sometimes pulls up beside drivers and watches as they type out texts or emails. Usually, they are completely unaware he is watching “because they are so sucked into their phones,” he said.

When he pulls them over, Flynn talks to them about the law.

“This isn’t just an enforcement operation, it’s also an education operation,” he said. “Our goal is to reduce crashes and let people know the dangers of using their phones.”

When Sanford officer Rick Bucklin is out on patrol, he sees vehicles pull up to a red light and “the first thing people do is grab their phone and go through it,” he said.

When he pulls them over, he talks to them about why they need to put their phones down.

“We want to stop the violation – it’s not just about giving out a big ticket,” he said.

In South Portland, Navarro regularly shares the story of what happened to him on the Casco Bay Bridge and hands out flyers with photos of his wrecked cruiser.

“When you almost lose your life like that, you think about it differently,” he said. “I was almost killed by a text message.”

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