A Maine State Police lieutenant told lawmakers Wednesday that passing a bill to dramatically increase fines for people handling cellphones while driving might not have the intended effect, in part because officers could end up issuing more warnings and fewer citations.

“At times we have seen the opposite effect, due largely to the compassion of police officers who don’t feel the punishment fits the crime,” said Lt. Bruce Scott, who oversees the traffic division. “Some officers will opt to issue a warning rather than levy a harsh penalty that includes a disproportionate fine or license revocations.”

Although Scott said he was not officially opposing the bill, he also said the Legislature should first study whether the law passed in 2019 is working before passing a 10-fold increase in the fines.

But Doug Thomas, a volunteer firefighter and a Montville selectman, said it’s obvious to him that the current fines are not large enough. He said he has been called to many distracted driving accidents and saw 22 people handling cellphones during his 34-mile trip to Augusta on Wednesday.

“Clearly $50 is not a deterrent,” Thomas said. “I suggest we simply add a zero to that and make it $500, which in my opinion would make it stand out very clearly in people’s minds.”

Scott and Thomas were among those who gave divided testimony Wednesday during a hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. The committee is considering a bill sponsored by Rep. Stanley Zeigler, D-Montville, that would increase the fine for a first violation from $50 to $500 and increase the fine for a second violation from $250 to $1,000. The actual costs are higher because of mandatory processing fees. Zeigler’s bill calls for revoking a driver’s license after a third offense.


Zeigler acknowledged during the hearing that similar efforts to boost the penalties have failed in the past. “This is the third time this bill has been announced,” Zeigler said. “I hope this is the third charm on this.”

Maine first enacted a ban on texting while driving in 2011. But police said it was difficult to prove that somebody was using their phone for texting, as opposed to looking up a music playlist, driving directions, the weather forecast or scrolling through social media. So in 2019, lawmakers enacted a ban on using a handheld electronic device while driving, known as a “hands-free” law, to cover those activities.

Maine also has a distracted driving law, which prohibits activity that is not necessary to operate the vehicle and actually impairs, or is reasonably expected to impair, operation of the vehicle. Scott said those violations carry a $134 fine, as set by the courts.

Under the current “hands-free” law, drivers can use electronic devices only with a one-finger tap or swipe and as long as the device is secured to vehicle by a mount or cradle where it doesn’t impede the driver’s view of the road. A narrow exception exists for emergency calls, except for drivers with provisional licenses.

Last year, distracted driving was listed as a factor in 3,154 crashes, about 300 fewer than the year before, according to Maine Department of Transportation data. More than half of those were rear-end collisions or sideswipes. Eleven were fatal and more than 1,100 caused injuries. But it’s unclear how many distracted driving crashes were attributed to using a hand-held device.

Scott, the state police lieutenant, said it’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of current state law because of reduced traffic enforcement during the pandemic.


The six people who testified during a public hearing Wednesday had divided opinions about the bill. The committee also received written testimony from 18 individuals and groups, including 11 in support of the increased fines.

Jane Armstrong of Portland said in written testimony that she was driving with her 17-year-old daughter on Interstate 295 in 2018 when they were rear-ended by a distracted motorist.

“The intensity of the impact crushed the back of my car and then launched me into a truck in front of me,” Armstrong said. “As my daughter screamed for help, all I could do was pull each of us through the shattered window and crawl across the highway.”

Armstrong, who supports the bill, said she and her daughter were transported to Maine Medical Center. The penalty in existing law “is nominal compared to the damages that victims suffer,” she said.

“Distracted driving is a danger for all road users,” said James Tasse, who testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “It’s even more lethal for those walking or bicycling who are not enclosed in protective metal boxes of motor vehicles.”

Lauri Boxer Macomber, an attorney who represents victims of distracted drivers, supported the bill on behalf of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, calling distracted driving “a public health epidemic” as dangerous as drunken driving.


“Driving intoxicated is pretty much the same thing as driving in-text-icated,” Macomber said. “When people are on their phones, they are blind to what’s around them and it’s the same thing as driving drunk, so it would be appropriate to have the same fine.”

A first OUI offense carries a $500 fine and a second offense comes with a $750 fine.

Five groups submitted comments in opposition to the proposal, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Maine Center for Economic Policy. Those groups argued that increasing fines would not curb violations and could disproportionately affect low-income people who would be unable to pay such fines and Black drivers, who are pulled over by police at higher rates than white people.

Alysia Melnick, an attorney at Portland-based Bernstein Shur, testified in opposition to the bill on behalf of the ACLU of Maine. Melnick said a $500 fine may not be a big deal to executives making six-figure incomes, but could have lasting impacts on low-income people.

“The wealthy driver may dash off a check without thinking, but the poor driver could get stuck in the legal system for years, paying off the fine in small monthly increments, facing arrest and imprisonment for missed payments,” Melnick said. She also argued that the fines could be unfairly applied because studies have shown that Black people are 20% more likely to be pulled over than white people.

The Department of the Secretary of State also opposed the bill, saying the fines exceed other traffic violations such as speeding in a school or construction zone and improperly passing an emergency vehicle with its emergency lights on. And the proposed second offense fine of $1,000 is greater than the $750 fine for a second offense of operating under the influence, it said.


“While we recognize and we share concerns about cellphone use while driving … the additional penalties of the bill are extremely disproportionate to the treatment in similar statutes of other traffic infractions and traffic crimes,” Deputy Secretary of State Catherine Curtis said.

Lawmakers didn’t debate or vote on the bill, L.D. 145, Wednesday, but several appeared skeptical that increasing fines would work.

Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, wondered whether state officials and law enforcement have been doing enough to educate people about the 2019 law that made it illegal to hold onto your cellphone while driving.

“I’m of the opinion that we still haven’t done the best job,” Farrin said while questioning Thomas. “You can say that’s common sense, but there’s still people who don’t realize that talking on a handheld device is illegal. I question the education piece of that.”

Thomas, the volunteer firefighter, was quick to respond.

“If you told them they would have to pay a $500 fine they would get the message pretty quickly,” he said.

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