AUGUSTA, Maine — Since 2007, Maine has had a law banning cell phone use for drivers under 18 years old, but soon state lawmakers will consider extending that to all drivers.
The Transportation Committee will hold public hearings on five proposals, ranging from banning cell phone use by drivers in construction zones to overall bans. The hearings begin at 10 a.m. Friday.
“There is a problem out there,” said Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington, a member of the committee. “Whether it’s cell phone use, texting or fooling around with the knobs on the radio. Everybody does it, you know, it’s just one of those crazy things.”
Gooley, who is waiting to hear testimony before weighing in on the issue, said he understands the dangers of driver inattention.
He recently had to veer out of the path of a car that had drifted out of its lane on Route 27 while driving to Augusta with his wife, he said.
“We almost bought it,” Gooley said. “We’ll never forget the incident, I can tell you.”
Recent national studies have shown a connection between cell phone use while driving and the driver’s risk of being involved in a crash.
A report released by AAA’s Foundation for Public Safety in December said studies have shown drivers who use cell phones are four times more likely to get in a crash than drivers not on the phone.
House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said the growing body of research on drivers’ cell phone use would likely drive lawmakers’ debate on the topic.
“The challenge of the Legislature is to deal with these bills in a thoughtful way and improve public safety,” she said. “It’s hard for us to legislate common sense, but I do think these bills will get a more serious look than they have in the past, because of some of the new information that’s coming out.”
Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-York County, the assistant Senate Republican leader, agreed with Pingree.
“Common sense is not something you legislate,” he said. “In my personal opinion, I’m not sure it’s time for government to step in, so far.”
Both Pingree and Courtney said debate over the issue would likely be heated, but not easily divided along party lines.
“This issue is one that’s very unlikely to be partisan,” Pingree said. “Even personally, I’m conflicted. I haven’t made a decision of how I’m going to vote on this issue.”
And there’s no guarantee the law would actually reduce cell phone use by drivers.
The number of drivers using cell phones is increasing, according to AAA research. Fifty-three percent of drivers said they had talked on their cell phone while driving in the past 30 days, according to a recent survey.
When asked if the behavior will stop if there’s a new law, Gooley said, “It won’t.”
Eight states and the District of Columbia have bans on all drivers for either text messaging or using a hand-held phone while driving and 17 states have laws that place restrictions on young drivers, according to the AAA report.