AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would make it illegal to use a mobile phone while driving if it is not connected by a “hands-free” device.

In a 24-10 bipartisan vote, senators rejected an effort to kill the measure and passed it in a procedural vote. The measure substantially beefs up Maine’s distracted driving laws. 

The bill, LD 185, would create a traffic infraction and $50 fine for a first-time offenders. A person convicted more than once would face a minimum fine of $250.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the bill’s chief sponsor, said in 2014 that there were an estimated 2,000 motor vehicle accidents and 12 fatalities in Maine that were connected to the use of a cellphone in the car.

“We can’t deal with every possible safety issue here,” Katz said. “But the evidence is so clear that this is a major cause of many, many collisions, we can do something about it.”

Katz said the measure had no impact on people’s ability to drive and be mobile.

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Also backing the bill, Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a former Maine State Police trooper, said distracted driving is a real safety issue.

“Nobody in this chamber can deny that,” Burns said. “The problem is nobody wants to be inconvenienced, you don’t, I don’t. But the justification is clearly there when you compare this with operating under the influence of intoxicants.”

Burns said when the Legislature started to take drunken driving seriously they were able to have a positive impact on the ongoing “carnage.”

“Let’s not put it off,” Burns said. “Let’s stop the carnage.”

Those opposing the law change, which would make it an offense to drive and talk on a cellphone by holding it in a hand, said there were many other activities that drivers undertake that could lead to accidents.

“Currently if a police officer sees someone driving erratically or driving recklessly they can be pulled over for distracted driving and reckless driving and can be ticketed for that,” Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said.

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Brakey, who opposed the change, said even eating while driving could be considered a distraction.

“Where does it end?” Brakey asked. “I’m willing to accept that cellphones are something that distract people but you know what else distracts people? Noisy kids in the back seat of the car. Are we going to ban noisy kids in the back seat of the car? Eating french fries while you are driving, you only have one hand on the wheel then? Are we going to ban that?”

But other lawmakers said talking on a mobile phone not only takes one hand off the wheel but the driver’s mind off the task at hand.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said Brakey’s assertions were off base. Gerzofsky said eating and driving aren’t the same thing as being engaged in a conversation on the phone.

“A cellphone gets you in a different place,” Gerzofsky said.

The measure will head to the Maine House of Representatives for further consideration.

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