AUGUSTA, Maine — Drivers who get distracted while using their cell phones, putting on makeup, arguing — or anything else — and who break traffic laws or get into accidents, can be ticketed by police starting Saturday.
The new distracted driver law that takes effect Sept. 12 allows police to ticket inattentive drivers for failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle. A distracted driver is someone doing or using something “that actually impairs, or would reasonably be expected to impair, the ability of the person to safely operate the vehicle,” the law states.
“Eating, drinking, arguing, talking on the phone, texting — anything that is not necessary to the operation of the vehicle” can be deemed distracting, Lt. Christopher Grotton, director of the Maine State Police Traffic Safety Unit, said last week. “Is it broad? Yes, it is. But it’s not unnecessarily broad.”
The new distracted driver law is designed to decrease accidents on Maine roads and carries a penalty of between $25 and $500 per traffic infraction, he said.
In recent years, there have been several attempts to enact laws to ban cell phone use while driving, but those proposals didn’t quite fit Maine, Grotton said.
“That’s part of the picture, but that’s not the entire picture,” he said. “Maine’s approach this time is a little unique.”
Instead of banning the use of cell phones and other hand-held devices, which six states have decided to do, Maine lawmakers basically decided to look at the root of the problem — distracted drivers.
“They took a unique approach and focused on the result of distracted driving, not the reason” for the distraction, Grotton said. “The obvious problem [with a list of banned items] is it doesn’t take long for something to exist that is outside that list.”
Maine is the first state to address distracted driving in such a way, Grotton said.
“Between 30 and 40 percent of Maine’s crashes involve some driver inattention,” he said. “With 39,000 crashes a year, that’s 10,000 to 20,000 crashes in Maine at least indirectly connected to distracted driving to some degree.”
Nationally, an average 34,000 fatal motor vehicle crashes list distraction as a factor, he said.
“When you look at the scope of the problem, it’s fairly disturbing,” Grotton said.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the former Maine secretary of state, has said he sponsored the bill after a state trooper reported seeing a woman driving through a turnpike tollbooth during the Fourth of July weekend while watching TV’s “Gilmore Girls” on her laptop.
As more and more gadgets have been created to better people’s lives, using them while driving has become socially acceptable, Grotton said. That way of thinking has to change to protect the driver and others on the road from harm, he said.
“Driving is like this background activity” to some people who get behind the wheel, he said. “We’ve really become desensitized to it. This is really going to be about cultural change.
“This is an elective activity,” he added. “It’s something we can fix.”
Maine already has laws that ban novice drivers from using cell phones for calls and texting. While only six states have banned cell phone use while driving, seven have banned texting while driving, Grotton said.
Talking on a cell phone and not paying attention to the road, Grotton said, can be as dangerous as drinking and driving. He said the same goes for other distracting behaviors.
Police are not going to stop drivers just for using their cell phones or undertaking other activities, unless they are visibly distracted, he said.
“If a trooper sees someone on the highway and sees that person on a cell phone or other device, or eating, and also swerving, they may be stopped for that,” Grotton said.
A person can be charged with failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle or driving to endanger if he is distracted at the time, or if the driver is distracted and gets into a reportable personal property damage accident, the law states.
“If somebody was to strike and kill a child while driving and that person was talking on the phone, arguing, or looking in the back seat for a pacifier … should we differentiate between the cause or punish the result,” Grotton said.
“I think it’s a good common sense approach to the problem,” he said of the law. “Hopefully, it will be effective and make a difference.”