AUGUSTA — After years of strengthening rules against distracted driving, the Legislature is once again grappling with the issue of whether talking on a handheld cellphone while driving should be legal.
Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, who has tried to ban cellphones while driving before, has filed “An Act to Prohibit the Use of a Handheld Cellular Telephone While Operating a Motor Vehicle,” which was the subject of a Wednesday public hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
“Text messaging, emailing and even dialing a phone while driving draws your attention away from the road, and drivers have no business putting others in danger,” said Beaudoin in prepared remarks that were delivered to the committee by Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford. “I would fully support a full ban of cellphone use by drivers.”
But a full ban on talking on cellphones while driving is not what Beaudoin proposes. Her bill would prohibit the use of handheld mobile telephones and other mobile telephones unless their hands-free features are being used. The penalty for violating the law would be $50 for the first offense and $250 thereafter. Those fines are low in comparison to fines already on the books for mobile phone text messaging while driving, which was outlawed by the Legislature in 2011. Fines for texting while driving, which include text messages, instant messages and emails, range from $250 to $500.
Exceptions from Beaudoin’s proposal would include drivers of emergency vehicles, physicians, holders of commercial driver’s licenses, municipal public works personnel, Maine Turnpike Authority personnel and state transportation personnel — including employees and contractors of the Maine Department of Transportation — as long as they are driving within the scope of their employment.
Several people at Wednesday’s public hearing questioned the proposed exemptions to the law, including representatives from two quasi-municipal water districts and a representative from the Maine Nurse Practitioner Association.
“It’s sometimes necessary for water and safe water workers to use a cellphone while driving,” said Jeff McNelly, executive director of the Maine Water Utilities Association.
On the other side of the issue was Ann Mitchell, who spoke on behalf of the Maine Municipal Association. Mitchell was the only person who spoke against Beaudoin’s bill on Wednesday.
“If citizens are required to pull to the side of the road to make a cellphone call, then so should everybody else,” she said. “The association’s position is that there should be no exemptions.”
Sen. Linda Valentino agreed, especially considering the hands-free features on many cellphones.
“There is no reason why people can’t do this hands free,” she said. “Either your employer or your municipality will do whatever they need to do to make you legal.”
Pat Moody, manager of public affairs for AAA New England, said recent studies have shown that some 90 percent of people fear distracted driving as much as they do drunk driving. He said studies have also shown that talking on a cellphone while driving is every bit as dangerous as texting on one.
“Hands free is not risk free,” he said. “We’ve continually emphasized the risk of all cognitive distractions. … Distraction is really not new and there’s not a lot of mystery to it. A driver’s crash risk doubles when the driver looks away from the road for more than two seconds. The public gets it; they know it’s dangerous.”
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association’s website, which was updated this month, 10 states; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit the use of all cellphones while driving. In most of those places, talking on a cellphone is a primary enforcement issue, meaning an officer may cite a driver for using a cellphone without any other traffic offense taking place.
No state bans cellphone use for all drivers, though 33 states and D.C. ban cellphone use by novice drivers. Additionally, 19 states and D.C. ban cellphone use for school bus drivers. When it comes to text messaging, 39 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban texting for all drivers, according to the organization.
Cellphone use while driving is already addressed in Maine law, though in a roundabout way. In 2009, the state enacted a distracted driving law that makes it a crime to commit a traffic offense or be involved in an accident while engaged in an activity “that is not necessary to the operation of the vehicle” or “that impairs … the ability of a person to safely operate the vehicle.”
Barbie Redmond, deputy secretary of state, said Wednesday that there have been 280 convictions for texting while driving in 2011 and 2012. There have also been 208 convictions for drivers younger than 18 talking on cellphones since 2008, which is when the act became illegal. Since the passage of Maine’s distracted driver law in 2011, there have been 791 convictions for failure to control a motor vehicle, which Redmond said is typically the charge that comes from violating the distracted driver law.
Beaudoin’s bill is scheduled for a work session by the committee on Tuesday.