BELFAST, Maine — Two years ago, Rob Dietz began to notice something alarming.
The founder of Belfast’s Pica Design had bought a new smart phone and realized he was using it in a way that was “not so smart,” he said, including checking emails in the line at the grocery store and glancing at the phone when in the car.
Then Dietz heard some national news reports about high-profile accidents and other dangers of distracted driving, and started looking around at how many people were juggling electronic gadgets when they’re behind the wheel.
“It dawned on me that this was something we needed to talk about,” he said recently. “We’ve built a multitasking society. I saw a gentleman driving a Ford pickup truck, texting and driving. An elderly man was doing this. This is an epidemic, really, for the country.”
But Dietz, and others at Pica Design, ultimately did a lot more than just talk.
They founded a nonprofit organization, TxtResponsibly.org, that has a mission to raise awareness of the dangers of texting while driving and to prevent harmful injury or death caused by the act of texting recklessly.
“It’s not just kids texting. It’s everybody,” said Cassidy Parmley, the organization’s treasurer. “You’re like a speeding bullet. Driving 70 miles per hour and distracted — it’s like you’re a loaded gun.”
According to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver distraction, including texting and using a cell phone, was a cause of 5,474 driving fatalities in 2009. That is 16 percent of the total 33,808 fatalities for that year.
Although statistics for Maine weren’t available, law enforcement officers and drivers have at least anecdotally cited it as a cause of dangerous driving in the past few years.
In 2010, Maine State Police spokesman Steve McCausland described how a Bangor man was cited after texting while driving in Augusta. Several motorists had called to report that the man’s SUV was weaving around the capital, and a trooper tried to stop him, but it took the driver some time to respond to the police lights. That driver was issued a summons for reading while operating a motor vehicle.
Harrowing stories like that, and the high national accident numbers, are two reasons why state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, has introduced legislation to ban texting while driving in Maine. The bill, L.D. 736, would make texting behind the wheel a primary offense, meaning that police could stop drivers because of it. If found to be in violation of the law, offenders would be fined $100.
A public hearing was held recently for the bill, which Diamond characterized as “two hours of positive support,” with only the Maine Civil Liberties Union speaking against it.
“If we can change this habit, I think we can make it as unacceptable as drinking and driving,” he said Friday. “It’s not an outrageous fine, but it’s enough to get people’s attention.”
Diamond, who sponsored the existing law on distracted driving two years ago, said that law hasn’t done enough to prevent driving while texting. Thirty other states and the District of Columbia all have laws against the practice, he said.
“I think it says clearly that this is a serious issue, and we have to make a statement on it,” he said.
The lawmaker said he expects the bill to “fly” through both bodies of the Legislature, and if it does, it likely would go into effect by the middle of September.
Alysia Melnick of the MCLU said her agency has concerns, both about the efficacy of the proposed law and of the chance that drivers could be unfairly targeted by police if texting is made a primary offense. The group did support the distracted driving law, which she characterized as a compromise that works.
“We specifically feel very concerned about the creation of laws that invite discretionary and discriminatory stops by law enforcement,” Melnick said Sunday. “We get concerned about the privacy implications and the civil liberty implications of such a law.”
She said public education is a better way to solve the problem of texting while driving.
“I think it’s important that people are trying to get the word out, but that doesn’t always mean that we create new crimes and new laws in response,” she said, adding that the education effort of TxtResponsibly.org seems to be a powerful tool.
Officials at the Belfast nonprofit would like to help reduce those accident statistics and have started their awareness campaign to be part of the solution.
The campaign has already gone national, with an Internet-based education initiative that includes personal stories from those whose lives have been affected by the dangers of texting while driving, as well as an oath to not drive while texting that has been signed by 800 people.
“We found that people are compelled to hear these stories,” Parmley said. “Every day, people have reached out to us. People are moved. They understand, hopefully, that life is worth more than, ‘Hey, could you pick up groceries from the store.’”
That part of the education campaign can be heartbreaking, the men said, describing a recent call they received from Washington state about a girl who had died in a car crash.
“She was texting and driving on a two-lane bridge, with a truck coming the other way,” Dietz said.
After the crash, the truck driver said that he had nowhere else to go, because of the bridge, and that he kept saying, “Look up, look up,” to the oncoming driver.
“She just drove right into the truck, and she died,” Dietz said.
When those stories reach the eyes, ears and hearts of the public, change can happen, they said. Board member Amanda Umscheid of Kansas has begun speaking around the country to raise awareness of the dangers of irresponsible texting. They are dangers she knows well, after her 19-year-old sister was killed in 2009 in a car accident that happened while she was texting Umscheid.
“The guilt I feel every day is a hard load to carry,” she wrote on the nonprofit’s website.
She’s not alone, Dietz said.
Even close calls can be upsetting. Last fall, a Newport woman described in the BDN how she believed she was nearly in a head-on collision on Route 1A in Frankfort due to an oncoming driver texting with her hands off the steering wheel.
“I see this car drift into my lane and I think that she’s got enough room here and she’ll correct herself, but she didn’t,” Alicia Nichols said. “She’s doing about 50 miles per hour and I’m doing about 50 miles per hour and we’re going to hit head-on and probably my air bag isn’t going to be enough to save me. And oh my God, I’m going to die on Route 1A in Frankfort because this girl is texting.”
“There are literally thousands of people who have been affected in these ways,” Dietz said, likening the nascent texting and driving awareness campaign to the early days of the anti-drunken driving movement.
“Friends shouldn’t let friends drink and drive,” he said, quoting a slogan from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Well, friends shouldn’t let friends text and drive.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the group is backing legislation to ban texting while driving. Nonprofit groups are not allowed to support legislation.