AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Transportation Committee narrowly voted against a bill Friday that would outlaw the use of cellphones or other electronic devices while driving, but there were indications the measure could stand a better chance of passage when it reaches the full Legislature.
LD 185, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, seeks to improve driver safety by restricting electronic device usage to hands-free mode, a concept that has strong support from law enforcement agencies in Maine. However, those who oppose the bill see it as a violation of personal freedom and an example of government overreach.
The committee voted 7-6 to recommend against passage.
Fourteen states have banned talking on hand-held cellphones while driving; 37, including Maine, have restricted the use of cellphones by novice drivers and 44 states, including Maine, have banned texting while driving.
“The fact is, since these laws have passed, fatalities and collisions have gone down,” said Katz.
Maine State Police Lt. Brian Scott said passing the bill would help officers enforce an existing law that bars texting while driving because it would outlaw the simple act of holding an electronic device.
“Texting while driving is a huge issue,” said Scott. “But we can’t enforce the statute the majority of the time because there’s no way to know if a driver was sending a text.”
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, was one of the bill’s supporters.
“This really would reduce texting,” he said. “If this bill succeeds, we’ve done two things. We’ve helped put hands back on the wheel, but we’ve also given law enforcement a critical tool in reducing texting, which is already in law.”
Some of Diamond’s colleagues on the Transportation Committee disagreed.
“I just don’t feel that this is the way to go about this,” said Rep. Brian Hobart, R-Bowdoinham. “We realize that we’ve got to make the road safe, but one size does not fit all.”
Rep. Wayne Perry, R-Arundel, objected to the bill on a number of grounds, including that it would overburden lower income Mainers who can’t afford hands-free equipment such as Bluetooth or headsets.
“What’s going to happen to the people who can’t afford to spend on the hands-free?” he said. “Are we going to put a subsidy in for the people who can’t?”
Voting in the minority in favor of the bill were Diamond; Rep. George Hogan, D-Old Orchard Beach; Rep. Christine Powers, D-Naples; Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham; Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport; and Sen. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport.
The bill will go to the full Legislature in the coming weeks.
The Transportation Committee also unanimously voted down another bill that has garnered attention, An Act to Eliminate the Requirement that Adults Wear Seatbelts, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn.
Committee members voiced concern that repealing the law would cause fewer people to wear seat belts and put federal funding at risk.