Maine's new distracted driving law went into effect on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how it is enforced, as this legislation is intended to address a whole new, scary suite of rampant misbehaviors.
Common sense must reign, for if this law is used to punish behavior that is either benign, necessary or otherwise justifiable, public support for it will disappear. Law enforcement must walk fine lines among punishing the egregious, encouraging the repentant and condoning the innocent.
Take the accident in Lewiston the other day, when a woman driving on Pond Road was trying, for reasons beyond our comprehension, to feed a cat while driving. She crashed, and turned a pretty rugged-looking utility pole into a splintered mess. Clearly, cat-feeding is a driver distraction.
And, predictably, police said this behavior would have sparked a charge under the new law.
Yet we can imagine scenarios in which the distraction isn't so cut-and-dried. Arguably, anything could possibly be a distraction, even normal driving activity such as changing lanes, adjusting the rear-view mirror, or latching a seatbelt. Could someone be charged for doing something for their safety?
We hope not, which is why we encourage common sense in enforcing this law. It's meant to help control popular activities of modern society that shouldn't occur behind the wheel: texting, watching DVDs, playing on global positioning devices, as well as the ludicrous, like feeding a cat.
These are dangers that have and will get people killed on the roads of Maine. It has been the ubiquity of multitasking to include driving that has prompted lawmakers and safety groups to action to combat the blasé response from the public so far. We haven't listened, so now there are laws.
What's worse is that it seems to be getting worse. There are people driving along Maine's highways, to invoke a notorious case, while watching a show on a laptop computer in the passenger seat. It begs questions: When did driving become so easy? Or, rather, when did our attention spans get so short? The best show a driver can watch is the road ahead. It's unpredictable and changing. If only television dramas could boast the same suspense.
If applied with judiciousness, the new distracted driving law could be effective. If enforced with insensible zeal, however, its real mission could become compromised. Under this law, it's most important to change driver behaviors, than charge the driving lawbreakers.
Then we'll all feel safer.