Driving While Distracted

Posted Aug. 02, 2008, at 12 a.m.

Of course you’ ve seen them — drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, reading, applying makeup, text messaging, eating and even dressing — while steering a 4,000-pound vehicle down the road at 50 mph. Here’ s another: A state trooper recently observed a woman watching a TV show on her laptop while driving. As outrageous as those examples are, there are other, equally distracting activities that we have come to accept as part of driving: talking on a cell phone, changing CDs or radio stations, managing seat assignments for children and pets and doling out discipline for same, and taking too much interest in the scenery.

An attempt by the Legislature last year to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving fell short of passage cell phone advocates argued there was insufficient data to show using the phones caused collisions and crashes, or at least any more than the other distractions. The Department of Public Safety agreed to consider adding “cell phone use” to a form law enforcement officers use to report crashes, hoping that would generate new data.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, thinks the best way to address the ill-advised use of electronic devices and other activities while driving is to tackle the concern in a more broad way: update the law that covers distracted driving. It’ s a sensible approach.

Law enforcement officers issuing a summons for “driving while distracted” would be making subjective judgments, but no more so than when they write tickets for imprudent passing, imprudent speed, reckless driving or driving to endanger.

A $25 fine for a first-time offense might get a driver’ s attention, and $100 for a second offense certainly would. As with the seat belt law, officers should be able to stop drivers based on their observation of what they believe is driving while distracted.

Perhaps cars have become too well-designed. Sophisticated suspension systems, highly responsive steering, smooth and quiet engines and transmissions, climate-controlled interiors and comfortable seats have so alienated drivers from the rigors of the road that they feel more like they are in an office cubicle or living room. But the responsibility of piloting a vehicle has not lessened. State laws addressing young drivers have been amended to reflect the seriousness of the activity, as have laws on being under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

In a typical year, 180 or more are killed in vehicle crashes in Maine. Just as attention is correctly focused on combating domestic abuse for its role in the murders of two dozen people each year in the state, the Legislature must work to make our roads — and drivers — safer.

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