AUGUSTA, Maine — With a growing number of accidents, injuries and deaths involving distracted driving and a decreased use of seat belts; the Maine State Police are launching a summerlong enforcement effort starting July 1 to enforce laws to protect motorists.
“About 50 percent of the victims of fatal crashes in Maine are not wearing a seat belt,” said Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police. “In the state police, every month, we spend literally hundreds of hours chasing down distracted driver calls. It is a serious problem.”
He said troopers will be placing an emphasis on enforcing the laws requiring seat belt use and the ban on distracted driving. He said the recent law banning texting while driving is causing some confusion because of a provision that allows motorists to talk on a cellphone, but not text while driving.
“The state police have been challenged by people who do not like that they have gotten a ticket for distracted driving for talking on their cellphone,” he said. “We are not writing the ticket for talking on the phone, we are writing the ticket because the person was observed to be driving in a distracted manner.”
Williams said distracted driving is far more than someone on a cellphone not being attentive as they drive and talk. He said tickets have been written for people shaving while driving, reading a book or newspaper, as well as for playing with a pet. He stressed all were not focused on driving and were observed exhibiting such distracted driving as crossing the centerline, driving over a rumble strip or changing speed excessively.
“We have had people going from 50 mph to 90 mph and weaving between lanes and when they are stopped and told what they were doing they were surprised,” he said. “They were so distracted they could not remember what they were just doing.”
Williams said at the same time troopers are watching for distracted drivers, they will be checking to make sure seat belts are being used. He said the latest informal surveys show the compliance rate in Maine has dropped, possibly to as low as 75 percent. The latest federal statistics, from 2010, had Maine with an 82 percent compliance rate.
“It is just unexplainable to me,” Williams said. “When you look at the history with children reminding parents to buckle up and that it has become a habit to buckle when you get in your car, I just don’t understand why fewer people are using their seat belts.”
He said studies have shown using seat belts reduces injuries and fatalities and that enforcement efforts have worked in the past and he hopes they will continue to work. He acknowledged that some other police duties may suffer as a result of the emphasis on distracted driving and seat belts and said the state police are no longer going to respond to some calls they get such as parents complaining they can’t get their child to go to bed.
“That’s a parental issue, not a police issue,” he said. “We can’t be spending time responding to calls like that, we don’t have the resources.”
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a member of the Transportation Committee and sponsor of the distracted driving law says the enforcement effort is a good idea and praises Williams for setting priorities.
“Parents shouldn’t be calling the state police or any police about something they should deal with as parents,” he said. “The police have enough to do in dealing with crime.”
Diamond said he is also puzzled at the apparent decrease in seat belt usage. He hopes more research is done to find out why so strategies can be developed to encourage more use, including legislation if needed.
Caribou Police Chief Mike Gahagan, President of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said he shares the concern and bafflement that seat belt usage is down.
“I just don’t understand why that is happening,” he said. “But it is something we need to address.”
Gahagan said local police agencies are enforcing both laws, but there are never enough resources to meet all the demands on police. He said he is reminded of a television advertisement.
“Sometimes I feel like the AFLAC duck in the boat trying to fill all the holes,” he said.