Lawmakers oppose cell phone bill

Posted Feb. 19, 2009, at 7:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee voted overwhelmingly Thursday against several bills that would have prohibited drivers from using hand-held cell phones or from text-messaging while behind the wheel.

But the controversial issue is not quite dead for the year. Lawmakers postponed a vote on a more generic bill to create a “distracted driver” law.

The Legislature’s Transportation Committee debated for several hours the merits of proposals to deal with the problem of drivers too engrossed in phone calls or text messages to pay proper attention to the road.

In the end, however, committee members voted 9-1 against a bill to ban drivers’ use of hand-held cell phones, except in emergencies. That bill now goes to the full Legislature with a majority recommendation of “ought not to pass.”

Lt. Christopher Grotton with the Maine State Police’s traffic division began the meeting with a presentation that illustrated the difficulty of addressing the issue.

Grotton cited numerous research studies showing that distractions — and particularly cell phones — are factors in crashes.

For example, an Australian study found drivers using cell phones were four times more likely to be involved in a serious crash, and a University of Utah study suggested cell phone use while driving was as dangerous as driving while legally drunk. But a University of North Carolina study ranked cell phones as eighth on the list of crash-causing distractions after such things as eating, reaching within the vehicle and looking elsewhere.

Six states have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, but only one of those states — New York — has studied the effectiveness of the law, Grotton said. In New York, the law initially resulted in a 1 percent decline of cell phone use while driving but the rate returned to normal within 18 months, Grotton said.

“This really is more than a driving issue,” he told lawmakers. “It’s a societal issue. We have gotten here because of lifestyle patterns and choices.”

Many of the committee members expressed support for some form of restrictions, whether a ban on hand-held devices or the more broad distracted driver bill, LD 6, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham.

But the lawmakers got hung up over who should be exempt. The cell phone bill that failed to earn an endorsement, LD 40, originally exempted physicians from the ban. But the language was expanded to medical personnel and then to the even more generic health care providers.

Other groups proposed for exemption were utility workers, law enforcement personnel and commercial truck drivers.

Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, argued it was hypocritical to ban hand-held cell phones but allow hands-free phones when some research suggests the two types are equally distracting. But other lawmakers said that was unrealistic.

“If we were to vote out a bill where we were going to prohibit all cell phone use … it wouldn’t go anywhere,” said Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook.

Cell phone use while driving is a perennial issue in the Legislature. To date, lawmakers have approved only one restriction: a prohibition against anyone under age 18 from using hand-held phones.

Even that law is difficult to enforce because police frequently cannot tell a driver’s age without stopping them first, Grotton said. During a one-year span, only two summonses were issued against minors for using a cell phone behind the wheel, he said.

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