New bills target distracted drivers

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 9:56 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — For Lynn Duplessis, navigating the traffic circles and busy streets of Augusta with her guide dog is always a challenge.

But all the attentiveness in the world on the part of Duplessis, who is visually impaired, and her guide dog won’t matter a bit if the driver rounding the rotary is too busy talking or texting away on a cell phone to notice the pair.

“We feel that any distraction of a driver will compound the difficulty we have of safely navigating the streets of Maine,” Duplessis, accompanied by her German shepherd, Queeg, told lawmakers Friday.

Duplessis’ was just one of many stories that state legislators heard Friday as they once again began grappling with the problem of how to deal with distracted, negligent or angry drivers.

Advocates for bans or restrictions on cell phone use in cars have had minimal success in Maine during the past decade, although the state does prohibit drivers under age 18 from using handheld phones.

But with research mounting about the distracting nature of the ubiquitous cell phone — and the ever-increasing number of ways for drivers to be distracted by their phones — those advocates are hoping 2009 will be their year.

A Harvard Center for Risk Analysis study estimates that cell phone use contributes to 6 percent of all crashes in the U.S., causing thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

Recent University of Utah studies using driving simulators, meanwhile, found that hands-free devices are just as distracting as handheld phones and that cell-using drivers were as impaired as those with a blood alcohol content of 0.08, the legal limit in Maine.

Yet the vast majority of drivers who own cell phones admit to using them while behind the wheel.

Lawmakers are weighing several approaches to the complex issue.

Three bills — LDs 40, 41 and 112 — would prohibit use of handheld phones while driving but would allow hands-free devices. Two of the bills also would prohibit text messaging while driving, and all three would exempt drivers of emergency vehicles and some others.

A fourth measure, LD 6, would more generally create a “distracted driver” law that would allow police to charge people who are too occupied doing anything — whether talking on the phone, reading e-mail or applying makeup — to stay on the road.

“Just the other day I saw somebody brushing his teeth,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. “This is absolutely true. He was brushing his teeth while he was getting on the turnpike.”

Supporters said the situation is just getting worse as phones become more advanced.

A representative from the Maine Motorcycle Political Action Committee said it used to be that people claimed they just didn’t see riders. Now, he added, many drivers are so distracted they are not even looking.

Dan Davidson, a retiree from Cape Elizabeth, urged lawmakers to go even further than states like New Jersey and Washington and ban all cell phone use — even with hands-free devices.

“It’s the brain that gets distracted, folks, not the hands,” Davidson said.

But not everyone was comfortable with the bills.

Barbara Berry with the Maine Association of Realtors said cars are mobile offices for many real estate agents, so using a cell phone is critical to doing business. Berry spoke in support of the proposed “distracted driver” law but said her association opposes banning cell phone use while driving.

Phil Duggan of Milbridge expressed civil liberties concerns about passing a law allowing police to stop drivers who are safely operating their cars just because they were using a cell phone.

While pulling over to take a call may work in some areas, Duggan said, it’s impractical and potentially dangerous to all drivers on many winding, rural roads that lack shoulders.

Others worried that the bills could affect amateur and citizens band radio operators, who they said play an important role in emergency communications when all other power is knocked out.

Committee members also heard testimony on a bill to create a “road rage” law.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, is seeking to link the crime of assault to motor vehicle crimes. Those convicted of road rage could lose their license for up to 180 days and be forced to attend anger management courses.

Rosen introduced the bill at the request of Joe Kennedy, an East Orland resident who said he was attacked by another man who had been tailgating him for several miles.

Kennedy said that when he pulled over to let the guy go by, the other man also pulled over and assaulted him. Kennedy said he suffered a mild concussion, received several stitches and still suffers from nasal problems. The incident also traumatized his family, he said.

His attacker, whom he did not name, was never charged, much to Kennedy’s dismay. He believes road rage is common in Maine but people do not talk about it.

“Make it a deterrent so that road rage does not occur in this state,” Kennedy said.

A representative from the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, however, said current assault and motor vehicle laws adequately address such situations. He also urged the committee to avoid linking outside-the-vehicle crimes to suspension of driving privileges.

The committee is expected to hold a work session on the bills next Thursday.

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