A new Maine law took effect Thursday that prohibits drivers from using their handheld phones for any purpose, whether talking, texting or scrolling through their Instagram feeds.
So when Officer Adam Oko of the Orono Police Department saw a man talking on his phone while driving south on Stillwater Avenue on Thursday afternoon, he immediately pulled his cruiser out of a gas station parking lot, trailed the man’s truck for a couple hundred feet and flipped on his siren.
Once the man pulled over, Oko collected his paperwork and told him that he was violating the new law. The driver, who was in his late 30s, explained to Oko that he had recently been caring for a newborn baby and had not been able to watch any news reports on the law change.
Finally, after checking the man’s driving record, Oko let him off with a warning and continued his patrol.
Although some of his colleagues had already stopped drivers Thursday for allegedly violating the new law, it was the first time Oko had.
Over the course of an hour-and-a-half in the afternoon on a day when officers expected to be doing some education on the new law, he drove up and down several of Orono’s main roads, stopping in a few spots — the gas station on Stillwater Avenue, a storage facility on Park Street — to watch for drivers who were clearly on their phones or violating other laws.
He also hopped on the southbound lanes of Interstate 95 at one point, where an electronic sign reminded drivers: “Today’s the day: Put the phone away.”
During that time, while a BDN reporter and photographer rode along with Oko in a police cruiser, just the one driver — the man in the truck — was visibly making a call.
In general, the new law will be easier to enforce than others that have sought to prevent distracted driving, according to Oko.
Now, officers can stop any driver who is clearly holding a phone. It may be harder at some times of day, such as when the sun creates glare on windshields, or easier at others, such as nighttime when the glow from a phone will be more visible, Oko said.
He’ll also use discretion in deciding whether to hand out tickets or warnings.
The fines can be steep and warnings can be an effective way to educate people who don’t know about the new law, but the punishment may be warranted if drivers have a history of traffic violations, according to Oko.
“Sometimes it’s the necessary option,” he said. “We just want people to comply with the law.”
To raise awareness about the new hands-free driving law, the Orono Police Department carried out extra patrols on Thursday and stopped more than a dozen other drivers who allegedly were violating it. Some got off with warnings.
Others were not so lucky, receiving a ticket under the new law that comes with a first-time fine of $230.
“It’s really meant to raise more awareness,” said Chief Josh Ewing, who stopped a couple drivers while out on patrol in the morning. “We know there’s been a ton of education about the new law, but we wanted to let the public know that we plan to enforce it.”
Going forward, the department will seek grant funds to conduct extra patrols that target distracted driving, Ewing said.
The new law has expanded the restrictions that Maine already had against texting while driving and distracted driving. Now, police can ticket drivers if they see them holding or tapping any electronic device that’s not necessary for driving.
It’s unclear how long the current fines will remain in place.
The chief judge of Maine’s District Courts has set a fine of $230 for a first-time violation of the new law, then $325 for a second violation. The language of the law only specified that there should be “a fine of not less than $50 for the first offense and “not less than $250” for the second.
Now, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the law’s sponsor, has said that he’s seeking to change the fines because those set by the court violate the original intent of the law, according to the Portland Press Herald. He said late Thursday that Maine Supreme Court Justice Leigh Saufley promised him that the judicial branch would review the fine amounts. Diamond also raised the possibility to the Press Herald of filing emergency legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in January to lower the fine amounts.
Regardless of the amount, Ewing wants drivers to remember that the ultimate goal of the new law is to cut back on distractions that could cause drivers to injure themselves or others.
He wants them to ask themselves: “Is that text or call really that important?”