Group urges more highway safety laws

Posted Feb. 07, 2010, at 9:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In its annual ranking of the states, the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety has lowered Maine’s ranking, from a state with good traffic safety laws to one that needs improvement.

“We made some changes in our criteria this year to be on the cutting edge of what is needed to make our roads safe,” Judith Stone, president of the group, said at a news conference last month. “We had several states that were green that are now yellow.”

Under the ranking system, a green state is one that has adopted most of the 15 core highway safety laws identified by the group. Yellow states, such as Maine, have adopted some of the laws, and the red states are those that have adopted less than half of the recommended measures.

“Reducing highway fatalities must be a national priority,” Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at the news conference. “The number of fatalities on our highways in any given year is about eight times the number of people lost in Iraq since the war started, is four times the number of fatalities due to swine flu in 2009.”

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Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said that Maine lost some ground by not passing a motorcycle helmet law or a measure banning all texting while driving. He said legislation addressing both issues failed last year.

“I thought we had a chance to pass a helmet measure last year,” he said, “but I couldn’t get it out of committee. And in some areas, we took a different approach to what they have suggested, like the distracted driving law we passed instead of a texting ban.”

Damon said that the state has most of the suggested laws but one area the group did not address in its report was the lack of adequate maintenance of roads. He said Maine probably would fail in that category.

“I really think that one of the biggest issues of safety and how we could improve the safety of road travel in Maine is to fix the roads,” he said.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the author of the distracted driving measure that became law last year, said the national group needs to look beyond simply banning the use of a single type of technology, such as texting or using a cell phone.

“Technology is constantly changing,” he said. “We will never keep up with all the new devices that are invented. My bill, my law, goes to any action that distracts a driver from concentrating on the road and driving, including stuff we have not yet imagined.”

Transportation Committee member Rep. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, agrees with most of the safety goals set by the group, but said a rural state has to craft its laws to meet the needs of its residents. For example, he said, setting 18 as the age for an unrestricted license makes little sense in Maine.

“We are a rural state,” he said, “and a lot of these youngsters who get licenses need one [because] their family operates a farm or their family operates a business.”

Thomas suggested the national group should set standards based on whether states are basically rural or are urban areas with serious traffic problems.

“It’s a lot easier to issue a report than get a law passed,” said Sen. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, also a member of the Transportation Committee. “The real problem is that we can’t legislate good judgment.”

He said the state has several safety measures in laws that are working to make the state’s highways safer, such as its drunken driving measures.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Maine has crafted its graduated driver’s license laws to fit the state. He said the reason young drivers have more accidents is that they are inexperienced. Maine law seeks to limit distractions young drivers may have by banning their use of a cell phone and not allowing another young person to accompany them in the vehicle when they first have a license, he said.

“The real issue here is the individual driver,” he said. “The driver has to play the critical role, and that will not change if you put in a stricter policy.”

Dunlap said Maine has been using the graduated license approach for about a decade, and believes it is working to improve safety on the roads.

While the recommendations of the group are worth exploring, Damon said, he doubts Maine lawmakers will consider any in this session. Some were considered and rejected in the first session of this Legislature and lawmakers are faced with significant budget issues to resolve in the few months remaining in the session, Damon said.

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