PORTLAND (AP) – Teenage drivers will be prohibited from talking on cellular phones for the first six months they have their licenses under a new law that goes into effect this fall.

The rule is the latest restriction to be placed on new drivers as officials attempt to reduce the accident and traffic fatality rates among teenage motorists.

“What we’re trying to do is see to it that new drivers have the experience they need prior to introducing the distraction of passengers, cell phones and nighttime driving,” said Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky.

While many high school students agree with the bill’s goal, some don’t think chatting on a cell phone while driving is a significant problem.

“If you know how to drive, it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Kevin Conway, a 17-year-old student at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish.

The cell phone ban is part of a bill signed into law last month that created a three-stage graduated licensing system to replace the state’s current two-stage process.

The law extends the permit stage to six months, during which new drivers aren’t allowed to drive without someone at least 20 years old.

Drivers who are violation-free for six months can get intermediate licenses, which prohibits driving between midnight and 5 a.m., driving non-family passengers unless supervised by someone who is at least 20, and driving while using a cell phone.

Lindsey Stephenson, 16, said she has a cell phone, but doesn’t have a problem with not being able to use it while driving.

“I know people that do that and drive recklessly because they’re on their cell phone,” said Stephenson, a student at Portland’s Deering High School. “I’ll probably use it often, but not when I’m driving.”

Conway said he doesn’t think the law would be enforceable because it will be too hard for police to identify who is a restricted driver.

Stephen McCausland, spokesman for Department of Public Safety, said police can tell which drivers are inexperienced by their driving habits. But, he said, police hope new drivers will be educated to the law so summonses don’t have to be written.

“Brand-new drivers have a lot of things that can distract them; at least with this bill it will not be the cell phone,” McCausland said.

Driving distractions, in fact, are a significant factor in 20 to 30 percent of accidents each year, according to federal statistics. Driver distraction also contributed to 26 percent of the accidents among 16-year-olds in Maine, according to the Department of Transportation.

A spokeswoman for the cellular phone industry said the industry agrees distractions play a role in accidents, but does not believe that cell phone use is at the top of that list.

A recent study by Virginia Commonwealth University placed cell phones as the sixth worst distraction, behind rubbernecking at accident scenes, driver fatigue, looking at scenery, passenger distractions and adjusting the radio.

The industry advocates an education-based campaign that teaches drivers about all distractions rather than just cell phone use, says Kimberly Kuo, spokeswoman for the Communication, Telecommunications and Internet Association.

AP-ES-06-09-03 0216EDT



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