Bills would ban phone use while driving

Posted Jan. 12, 2009, at 8:37 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Members of the 124th Legislature have barely received their committee assignments, but already four bills have been submitted that deal with at least a partial restriction on cell phone use while driving.

The city of Bangor also will discuss a ban during a government operations committee meeting tonight. A concerned resident first brought the idea to the city’s attention last fall.

On the national scene, the National Safety Council recently came out with a recommendation to impose a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving.

With discussions taking place at the local, state and national levels, it seems more and more possible that something will give in the coming months.

“Without getting into specifics, obviously the basic thing we advocate for drivers is to drive,” said Stephen McCausland, Maine Department of the Public Safety spokesman. “We will certainly be in the mix in this discussion.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Cumberland, has introduced a broad bill that would create a distracted-driver law. In his proposal, LD 6, the term “distracted” is defined as “engaging in an activity that impairs the operator’s ability to drive, including, but not limited to, using an electronic device, applying cosmetics or performing personal grooming with any device.”

He further defines electronic devices as any hand-held apparatus that is not part of the vehicle’s operating equipment, but cell phones are exempt under Diamond’s bill.

LD 40, which was introduced by Rep. George Hogan, D-Old Orchard Beach, and has a host of co-sponsors, seeks to restrict most people from using cell phones and hand-held electronic devices while driving. That bill would allow certain groups, including police, firefighters, emergency personnel and others to use cell phones as long as they are within the scope of their employment.

LD 41, introduced by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, and LD 112, introduced by Rep. Patsy Crockett, D-Augusta, are virtually identical to LD 40 but with slight variations in their wording.

More bills could follow, although it’s likely they would be consolidated into one bill, according to the state Office of Legislative Information.

“I’ve only seen the titles, so I can’t comment on their content,” said Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, newly appointed chairman of the Transportation Committee. “But I can say that we’ve had this issue before us in the past and we’ve had testimony that would seem to support that phones, even when used hands-free, are a dis-traction.”

Norman Heitmann, Bangor city solicitor, said the city either could put the matter on hold to see how the discussion plays out in Augusta, or it could proceed independently. Not long ago, the city passed an ordinance that banned smoking in cars if children are present. That municipal law became the impetus and model for a statewide ban.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, five states (California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington) have bans on hand-held cellular phone use in cars. Seven states (Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington) and the District of Columbia have a ban on text messaging for all drivers.

Many more states restrict cell phone use for specific types of motorists, such as novice drivers and school bus drivers. Twenty-two states have no restrictions at all.

Maine has a cell phone and text messaging ban for all drivers under the age of 18. The law, enacted in September 2007, is a primary violation, which means that an officer may ticket a driver for using a hand-held cell phone while driving without any other traffic offense taking place.

While many contend that cell phone use causes accidents, McCausland said the Department of Public Safety has no statistics to confirm or refute that contention.

“We’re trying to coordinate that into our crash reports,” he said. “The only thing we have now is a [category] for drivers who are distracted, but that is a broad category.”

Anecdotally, McCausland said, it’s likely more accidents are being caused by cell phone use simply because it’s an added distraction.

According to the National Safety Council, which has conducted numerous studies on cell phone use while driving, about 6 percent of all crashes, and about 2,600 fatalities annually, are attributed to cell phones. The council also said about 80 percent of all motorists talk on their cell phones while driving.

“Their position certainly adds credibility to the discussion,” Damon said of the safety council. “I think this issue will certainly bring a spirited discussion and it’s a concern I hear often from constituents.”

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