AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a measure that would ban the use of handheld devices while driving.

The measure, initially approved by both the Senate and House last month, heads next to Gov. Paul LePage.

State Police Major Chris Grotton called the proposal “exactly the law that Maine law enforcement needs in order to be able to successfully enforce the anti-texting laws that are already on the books in Maine.”

“The current statute is difficult and at times impossible to enforce,” he said.

The proposed law would levy a $75 fine for first-time violators who are caught holding a telephone, electronic game or pager while driving. Repeat offenders could face fines as high as $500 and suspension of their driver’s licenses.

The proposed ban secured initial approval last month when the Senate backed it 21-14 and the House 85-60.

But it required the hiring of a clerk in the judicial branch so its final approval was delayed until lawmakers could agree to fund the $65,000 annual expense for the measure.

Critics said that using cellular phones while driving has become ubiquitous and is often a business necessity. But supporters said that hands-free phones are widely available and are safer.

Pat Moody, manager of public affairs for AAA Northern New England, told legislators that during the past two years, the country “has experienced the greatest increase in car crashes in over 50 years,” due mostly to phone use.

“Distracted driving is a huge issue across our nation and in the state of Maine,” Grotton said. He said texting while driving increases the odds of being involved in a crash by 23 percent.

Grotton said that distracted driving and the anti-texting law adopted in 2011 are tough to enforce without a prohibition on handheld devices.

As it is, he said, “an officer must be able to prove that a person is in fact texting while driving, yet when passing a vehicle and only observing the operator for a glance we have no way of knowing if that person is texting or simply dialing a phone number, programming a GPS, scrolling through a music playlist or finding a contact number in their phone, all of which are legal to do.”

When stops are made, people are “not always entirely truthful” about what they were doing, Grotton said. If they won’t agree to hand over their phone,  he said, “we are basically done with the investigation. The person goes on their way without consequence.”

A ban on the devices would “provide a more objective, understandable and enforceable standard,” he said.

A Texas man uses his cellphone in the car.
AP

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