The Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business holds a workshop via videoconference Thursday on a bill aimed at offering more protection for the drivers of funeral home vehicles. Screenshot from video

In response to a deadly 2017 accident in Greene that killed the driver of a funeral home’s transport SUV, a legislative committee Thursday told funeral industry regulators to find ways to improve safety for their employees.

The measure, approved unanimously by the Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business, ordered the Board of Funeral Services to develop new rules to protect drivers and passengers by next January. It still needs approval from the Legislature.

Committee members turned aside efforts to require the board to address specifically the problem that caused the death of Rick Charest, 59, when a platform placed in the back of an SUV slammed through the front seat during an accident on Route 202.

“We need to get something done,” Rep. Jack Ducharme, a Madison Republican, said. “But I want the experts to do it and not us.”

The decision didn’t sit well with Charest’s widow in Winthrop.

“Having the funeral board write these rules is insane,” Marie Charest said, especially given that the panel in the past showed “complete indifference” to the issue when she asked its members to take action to protect others.

The Ford Flex SUV that Rick Charest of Winthrop was driving is pulled back onto Route 202 in Greene in November 2017 after the fatal wreck. Maine State Police photo

Instead, she said, it “admonished me” for submitting a complaint.

From her vantage point, Charest said, it seems as if the funeral industry has received “what arguably could be described as concierge service through this process” instead of the scrutiny that’s called for.

But committee members said the funeral board should solicit advice from engineers, automobile safety experts, lawyers and others who can help it craft new regulations that balance the needs of funeral homes with the necessity of offering employees behind the wheel the safety they deserve.

State Rep. Sue Bernard, a Caribou Republican, called it “a delicate issue” that’s important to get right.

“We need to be careful” about the process, she said, and “take baby steps to be thorough” to reach the goal everyone wants.

“I love the idea of bringing all the stakeholders together,” Bernard said.

Republican Sen. Scott Cyrway of Benton, a co-chairman of the committee, said he was concerned the original bill, which included a requirement that new rules ensure platforms and caskets can’t go through the front seat, would wind up becoming “a lawyer’s dream” in future legal cases.

Urging a more open-ended approach, Cyrway said, “I just want to make sure we’re not doing a bad service for everybody.”

Democratic Reps. Tavis Hasenfus of Readfield and Sarah Pebworth of Blue Hill said they want to ensure that vehicles are safe for funeral home workers when they transport bodies.

Maine State Police Cpl. Ricci Cote Screenshot from video

Maine State Police Cpl. Ricci Cote’s accident report noted that when he saw the smashed Ford Flex transport SUV Charest had driven, an inch-thick platform was midway up the driver’s seat, where it was wedged, with the seat caved in.

Cote told lawmakers Thursday the vehicle “absolutely” could have been safer. Had the platform been lower, he said, “I don’t think it would have taken his life.”

“It is super simple,” Hasenfus said, mostly just requiring that funeral homes take out back seats before putting a platform down to hold a body in place. That way they would not jam into people in the front, except in the most egregious wrecks.

Getting that change done “is not insurmountable and it does not need to be a huge cost,” Rep. Valli Geiger, a Rockland Democrat, said.

Pebworth said that ultimately that is going to happen.

“This is a change that’s coming and we need to plan for it,” Pebworth said.

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