Bill targets cellphone use while driving

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.

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PAUL ST JEAN's picture

If they keep adding

If they keep adding exemptions to the law, the only remaining people it will apply to will be unemployed drivers.

Bob White's picture

Its funny to see a police

Its funny to see a police officer pass you and he is on his computer.

Jim Cyr's picture

To all you life long

Regulators, if you make cell phone use illegal while driving, that means everyone, NO EXCEPTIONS.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Amen to that, brother.

Amen to that, brother.

Steve  Dosh's picture

Bill targets cellphone use while driving

Mainers 13.02.14 10:35
†hink and drive ? 
/s Steve

MICHAEL FOX's picture

Commercial Drivers already have this law

Commercial drivers are already supposed to abide by this law. For the most part, they do. Though I do still see some drivers with a hand held phone to their ear. And the fines are a lot more than $50 for the first offense. It isn't worth it. If dispatch needs you on a string to call you at a moments notice, they need to supply the phone and the hands free.

Now, if they could just get the car drivers to apply make up at home, shave before they leave, read the paper when they get to work, or get up earlier so they can eat breakfast at home the roads would be safer. And for safetys sake, leave the computer off until you get to where you are going.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

The law should be redefined...

It's not really going to be a law to "stop" the use of cell phones, it's going to "fine" users of cell phones. This has been coming for a long time, now we're beyond the point of actually stopping people from using cell phones and driving. The risk involved with this practice has been demonstrated over and over again.
About three weeks ago I approached the intersection of Lake St, and Park Ave, in Auburn, a four way stop sign. As the vehicle in front of me went through the intersection I observed a minivan approach from my right, I stopped. This woman was in the new standard driving position, one hand on the wheel, one hand plastered to the side of her head. She blew through that stop sign like nobody's business. She never even slowed down. She looked like she was arguing with someone on the cell phone. This is nothing new, cell phones are relatively new, but distraction is a historical foe. It happens in many forms. I was leaving Jackman one night in the summer, and traveling in front of me was a car with Rhode Island plates, about half way down this huge hill they stopped in the middle of the road to capture a picture of a moose and calf. I'm behind in a forty to fifty ton truck load of chips, trying to suddenly stop behind them. I stopped, others haven't been so lucky.
Distraction comes in many forms and that is what needs the most attention, some drivers will need to learn to change attitudes about driving, paying attention is what will save your and someone else's life....


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