AUGUSTA, Maine — After considering several bills last session that would ban the use of cell phones and electronic devices by people driving vehicles, Maine lawmakers came to a simple conclusion: Don’t focus on the devices, target distracted driving instead.
Maine’s approach is now drawing national attention.
“We cannot just focus on cell phones or the electronic device of the day that people are interested in at that moment,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, sponsor of Maine’s distracted driving law which takes effect on Sept. 12. “What we do is focus on the behavior, not what specifically caused it.”
Under the new law, a driver who commits infractions such as running a red light or stop sign can be ticketed for those violations and also cited for distracted driving if a police officer believes that to be the underlying cause.
The fine for a single traffic infraction under state law can range up to $500 with the surcharges and fees added to the original ticket amount.
Diamond said he is very upset that Bush administration officials withheld government test data that indicates a person is much more likely to be in an accident if they engage in behavior that distracts them from driving.
“This information that was suppressed shows why this law is needed,” he said. “It is eye-opening.”
The data, released earlier this summer after several news organizations filed Freedom of Access requests, indicates a person is four times as likely to be involved in an accident when using a cell phone, the same as a person with a .08 blood-alcohol content.
Another study, where cameras recorded drivers in 100 vehicles over a year, found that drivers using a hand-held device were three times more at risk of a crash or a near crash than other drivers.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation said the approach the legislation uses is drawing national attention.
“I discussed this with [Transportation] Secretary [Ray] LaHood when he visited the University [of Maine],” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine. “He is very interested in this approach instead of trying to ban every new device that somebody thinks of.”
Michaud said he has also discussed the state legislation with other members of the House Transportation Committee, on which he serves. He said panel members are interested in the approach as an alternative to the several bills banning cell phones or other devices that are pending before Congress.
“I hope to get Sen. Diamond to Washington to testify about his bill,” he said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the approach Diamond uses is interesting and is an example of the state’s fashioning a solution to a problem that is better than several proposals before Congress that would penalize states that do not ban cell phone use, or ban the use of some other device while driving.
“People can be distracted while driving by many things,” Collins said. “I think this may be a better approach.”
Maine law enforcement officials are holding training sessions across the state to explain the new law and how it will work. Most expect officers will give out warnings for the first few months before writing tickets.
“There are so many things going on in a car today that can be a distraction,” said Col. Pat Fleming, chief of the Maine State Police. “It is a better approach to go after the behavior and not write a ticket for using a phone or a computer or whatever it is somebody’s doing that distracts them.”
He said earlier this year a woman in Bangor drove through a barrier into a section of road under construction. She was distracted by watching her GPS device and not the road, Fleming said.
He said the new law will help the goal of improving safety on the state’s roads. Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, agreed.
“This is another tool for law enforcement,” he said. “It’s a problem all of us face and this is a good approach.”
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said it will take time to see if there are any changes needed in the law to improve it. He said training updates under way for all police agencies include information on the new law.
“We’re going to have to see what it is they want for proof in court,” he said. “What is it the judge wants as proof a person was distracted while driving. It may take a while to get that all worked out.”
Diamond said he expected there may have to be “tweaks” to the new law once it is in use. He said the law is drafted to give officers flexibility and that distracted driving may be an additional ticket, not the primary offense.