AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage announced Tuesday a new state initiative to combat distracted driving and promised to beef up existing laws against cellphone use behind the wheel if he wins re-election in November.
During a news conference at the Department of Public Safety in Augusta, LePage said existing laws to prevent distracted driving fall short of what Maine needs. State police records show distracted driving has caused or contributed to more than 8,000 motor vehicle crashes in the past three years and resulted in 41 deaths.
“It’s just not enough,” LePage said of existing law. “There’s a lot of parents, children and mothers who are just not coming home.”
Maine has laws forbidding texting while driving and prohibiting inexperienced drivers from any cellphone use while behind the wheel. The state also has a rule to prohibit “distracted driving” in general, which makes it a crime to commit any traffic offense or be involved in an accident while doing anything “not necessary to the operation of a vehicle.”
LePage said he would like to see the law changed to ban any use of a cellphone or other device that cannot be operated hands-free. He also said he would like to see punishments shift from fines to license suspensions
Past legislative efforts to tighten Maine laws related to distracted driving have gone nowhere.
The new campaign by state police and the Bureau of Highway Safety will include education and enforcement initiatives aimed to crack down on texting and other electronic device usage by drivers.
The state has contracted with three Maine trucking companies to place anti-distracted driving billboards on the side and rear panels of large commercial box trucks that travel within the state. These messages include warnings such as “One text or call could WRECK it all” and “Survive your drive: No distractions, no excuses.”
Bureau of Highway Safety Director Lauren Stewart said 16 such trucks are already on Maine roads and more will be outfitted in the coming months.
Pike Industries, one of the state’s largest paving and highway construction contractors, also will partner with the Department of Transportation to place large, yellow warning signs at work zones along the highway. The signs feature an icon of a crossed-out smartphone and the text “Distracted driving kills.”
Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said the state sees an average of 500 crashes per year in work zones and said the signs should help keep drivers alert.
The campaign also will include increased — and unconventional — enforcement by state troopers. State Police Chief Col. Robert Williams said troopers will station themselves on highway overpasses, where then can better see what’s going on inside vehicles, and at intersections, where drivers often lower their eyes to their devices while waiting at red lights. Officers also will survey Maine’s highways from unconventional vehicles, including commercial trucks, in an effort to uncover distracted drivers.
Williams said he was no longer surprised by the manner of activities he has seen drivers engage in while behind the wheel. It’s not just texting and cellphone use, he said. People shave, read newspapers or put on makeup while they should be paying attention to the road.
“We even had one instance where someone was playing the guitar while driving,” he said. “If you can think it, you can see it.”
The campaign is funded by $600,000 in federal highway safety grants, which also will pay for increases in the radio public service announcements already used by the Bureau of Highway Safety.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.