Act on Distracted Drivers

Posted Jan. 20, 2009, at 4:59 p.m.

The Legislature should do more than debate ways of addressing the problem of distracted drivers this session. It should act, even if it means a very general law that tackles the specific threats posed by drivers talking on hand-held cell phones, text-messaging, shaving or applying makeup.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, has introduced such a broad bill which would, if approved, define “distracted” drivers as those “engaging in an activity that impairs the operator’s ability to drive.” Sen. Diamond’s bill, LD 6, comes after he indicated his intention in the 123rd Legislature to address complaints about car crashes caused by drivers using hand-held cell phones.

Representatives of the cell phone industry told the Legislature’s Transportation Committee that there was not convincing data to show that talking on a phone while driving were as much of a culprit in crashes as many supposed. Sen. Diamond’s proposal actually exempts cell phones, but if LD 6 wins approval, that device could be added later to the list of electronic devices that are named in the bill.

Two other bills proposed this session would ban the use of cell phones and hand-held electronic devices, and more such proposals may follow.

Sen. Diamond seems to be on the right track. As with seat belt use, the driving public must face the threat of punishment — even if it is a relatively minor traffic ticket — to be persuaded to do the right thing.

While drivers and passengers are either using seat belts or not using them, the notion of driving while distracted is admittedly more subjective. But law enforcement officers make other such subjective judgments in issuing tickets for imprudent speed, imprudent passing, reckless driving or driving to endanger.

A simple charge of driving while distracted — whether the source of the distraction is a disobedient dog, fighting children, a hot beverage or an electronic device — is a sensible place to start. In the coming years, more data can be gathered from police reports on crashes to see what patterns emerge. If text messaging is a major problem, it can be banned. Or only hands-free cell phone use could be allowed.

Other states have found workable solutions to these problems, and Maine should not shy away from taking action. Driving remains a privilege, not a right; adding another rule to the many that come with that privilege is not an assault of liberty, as some will argue. Part of government’s function is, and always has been, to protect us from one another and from ourselves.

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