Distracted drivers begin to get attention from state

By Kent Ward,
Posted Sept. 11, 2009, at 5:29 p.m.

Because of the numerous electronic gadgets available as potentially deadly playthings for motorists, Maine’s new distracted-driver law that takes effect today would seem to be an idea whose time has arrived.

The law allows police to ticket distracted drivers for failure to maintain control of their motor vehicle. It defines a distracted driver as one acting in a manner, or using some device “that actually impairs, or would reasonably be expected to impair, the ability of the person to safely operate the vehicle.” Driving while yakking on a cell phone is a prime example of inattention to the task at hand, although certainly not the only one.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former Maine secretary of state, reportedly sponsored the bill after a state trooper reported seeing a woman driving through a turnpike tollbooth while watching television’s “Gilmore Girls” program on her laptop computer. Presumably, it was the obvious threat to society that the turnpike tableau represented, rather than the ditzy dame’s choice of television fare that moved Diamond to act.

Lt. Christopher Grotton, director of the Maine State Police Traffic Safety Unit, said anything that is not necessary to the operation of a motor vehicle can be deemed distracting by police, and cause for making a traffic stop.

Tying your shoelaces, say, while driving down the interstate could get you hauled over by Old Blue and possibly charged with DWD (driving while dumb.) Ditto for other extracurricular activities behind the wheel, such as doing the crossword puzzle in the morning newspaper or text-messaging your parole officer on your daily check-in.

The seemingly great percentage of the motoring public that features a cell phone permanently attached to one ear may not have much cause to worry, though, unless their affliction causes them to swerve their vehicle and a police officer happens to be on hand to notice.

Police will stop motorists to question their unorthodox driving habits only if the drivers are visibly distracted, according to Lt. Grotton. If a trooper sees someone on the highway using a cell phone or other device, or eating — and also swerving — they may be stopped for that, he told BDN reporter Nok-Noi Ricker.

If a distracted driver becomes involved in a reportable traffic accident he could find himself charged with driving to endanger or failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle. Or perhaps worse should he maim or kill someone as a result of his inattention.

There have been numerous studies done, and big bucks spent, to determine that driving while talking on a cell phone or eating a full-course meal, changing the disc in your CD player or the diaper on your kid, and so forth, are dangerous diversions. Of course, any damn fool could have told researchers that, sans expensive study.

The distracted-driver law is designed to decrease mayhem on Maine highways, where up to 40 percent of accidents — possibly as many as 20,000 per year — involve some driver inattention, according to experts.

Some states have simply made it illegal for motorists to talk on cell phones while driving. Except for its novice drivers, Maine has rejected that approach. In the eyes of the new law, all driver distractions are created equal. We are the first state to focus on the result of distracted driving, rather than the reason for the distraction, Lt. Grotton said.

Driving while multitasking with the electronic gadgetry of the day seems increasingly to have become the extreme sport of choice for many desensitized drivers, with the driving part of the equation given the least attention. So the new law is really about cultural change, Lt. Grotton says, and the problem is fixable.

Maybe. Or maybe not. Time will tell whether the newest round of highway behavior modification works better than the drunken-driving laws (so-so), the law mandating that vehicle headlights be turned on whenever windshield wipers are in use (not so hot), or the law prohibiting littering (seemingly hardly at all in my neck of the woods.)

In the meantime, the defensive driver remains the smart driver. Even if he has to aggressively swerve on occasion to avoid buying the farm, courtesy of a twittering twit in the opposite lane.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/09/11/opinion/distracted-drivers-begin-to-get-attention-from-state/ printed on July 31, 2014