BANGOR, Maine — The conviction this month of a 16-year-old who crashed her car while text messaging helped drive home the point that inexperienced motorists don’t need any unnecessary distractions.
The teenager, whose name was not released, told police that she had dozed off when she slammed into the rear end of another car on Interstate 95 in Sidney, Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, noted last week in his weekly newsletter.
But state police Trooper Jeff Beach checked the girl’s cell phone after the accident last August and discovered that she had been trading text messages at the time of the crash.
As a result, the girl’s license was automatically suspended for six months and she was fined $135.
The teenager at issue was fortunate that the accident caused only minor injuries and did not have deadly results.
According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16- to 19-year old-, accounting for more than one in three deaths in that age group.
In Maine, six of the 155 people who died in fatal car crashes in 2008 were under age 18, according to Michelle Ward, state highway safety coordinator and fatal accident reporting analyst.
Of the 183 Maine highway deaths in 2007 and the 188 deaths in 2006, 10 victims each year were under age 18, Ward said.
According to Department of Motor Vehicle driver’s license statistics, nearly 15,300 Mainers under age 18 were licensed to drive as of Jan. 1.
As it stands, motorists under 18 are subject to several provisions, including the requirements that they not:
— Drive while using a “handheld electronic device,” which state law defines as a mobile telephone, electronic game or computer, MP3 player or any device for sending or receiving electronic mail and text messages. They can, however, listen to music from an electronic player if they do so passively.
— Carry any passengers except immediate family without being accompanied by a driver who is at least 20, licensed for at least two years and seated next to them.
— Drive between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.
Teens also face stiff license suspensions and fines for any traffic violations they commit for the first two years they hold a Maine driver’s license, Robert O’Connell, state director of motor vehicle licensing, said this week.
But despite the strict rules for young drivers the state put into place in September 2003, Connell said the effect on motor vehicle accident rates among young drivers has been “marginal.”
“I don’t have the figures before me, but I would say the impact has been negligible,” he said, adding that drivers ages 16 to 24 and those older than 75 continue to have the highest accident rates of all age groups.
During 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, drivers under age 18 racked up a total of 707 violations of teen driving laws. O’Connell said the number amounted to about 5 percent of the under-18 driving population, though he noted that in some cases, multiple violations likely were attributable to a single driver.
Citing state time and money pressures, O’Connell said he could not immediately provide a breakdown of how many of each type of violation occurred.
Asked if the stricter laws were reducing the number of teen violators, O’Connell said, “If they’re law-abiding to begin with, I think it’s effective from that standpoint.”
Area police officers said this week that they weren’t seeing a preponderance of accidents or violations stemming from teen texters, though each lacked hard data.
“We’re not getting a lot of traffic accidents involving young people at all,” said Bangor police Sgt. Bob Bishop, who serves as his department’s traffic enforcement supervisor. More common are accidents that occur while drivers — of all age groups — are talking on their cell phones, he said.
Even more common, he added, are the “near misses. You know, like when someone almost hits you head-on while talking on their phone. Those things aren’t reported, though. Scary, isn’t it?”
State police Trooper Mike Johnston, who is assigned to the Orono barracks, also said he personally wasn’t seeing much in the way of texting-while-driving violations among teen drivers. In fact, he has yet to see one.
“Well, I don’t know how much you can take away from that [but] if it was really prevalent, we’d see more violations,” he said.
Johnston added, however, that some of his counterparts might be seeing more, especially in southern Maine, where traffic volumes are higher.
“The most common [young driver] violation that I come across [involves] the ‘Cinderella provision,’” which prohibits teens from driving from midnight to 5 a.m., he said. Johnston said he sees about half a dozen such violations each year.