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By Peter McGuire Staff Writer July 3, 2019
Maine drivers accustomed to taking a call on the road or checking social media at a red light could be in for a rude awakening and a pricey ticket when a ban on holding a cellphone behind the wheel goes into effect this fall.
As of Sept. 19, anyone caught holding a cellphone or electronic device while driving can be pulled over and fined at least $50 and up to $250 for repeat offenses.
Police will probably start by handing out warnings so drivers can acclimate to the new law, said Lt. Bruce Scott, troop commander for the Maine State Police Traffic Safety Unit.
“I think generally with a new law, we are going to spend a lot more time doing education than enforcement,” Scott said.
That unofficial grace period will be short-lived.
“Once we start to see it is public knowledge, you will see more aggressive enforcement,” Scott said.
Drivers can still use their phone, but only in “hands-free” mode, either through remote headphones or by mounting it to the dashboard. Calls to emergency services are permitted under the new law. Drivers can use a phone while parked, but not while waiting at a stop sign, red light or in traffic.
The new ban is meant to curb distracted driving, a leading factor in vehicle collisions. Almost 3,200 people were killed nationwide in crashes caused by distracted driving in 2017, about 9 percent of all traffic fatalities according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
3,166 died in 2017 car accidents involving distracted drivers
Experts believe the true number of crashes caused by distracted driving is underreported because drivers will not admit they were playing with their phone, eating, or doing something else before the crash.
“People are driving distracted and causing crashes at an alarming rate,” Scott said.
Maine outlawed texting and driving in 2011, but police say the law has been hard to enforce because it focuses narrowly on typing and reading texts and emails. Unless they were caught red-handed, drivers can claim they were using their phone to look up directions or play music, not text.
Is everyone texting and driving now?
Plenty of other things can distract a driver, but cellphones – especially texting – are more dangerous because they pull a person’s eyes and attention off the road.
“The real goal here is to change the culture, we are all hoping we can get people to understand the importance of driving without distractions,” Scott said.
The ban came as a surprise to Jennifer Harmon, who was filling up at a gas station on Congress Street in Portland on Tuesday afternoon.
She puts her phone on a dashboard mount to use GPS while she’s driving, and says it really bothers her when people text and drive. With the threat of an expensive ticket, she’ll make sure to keep her phone out of her hand, Harmon added.
“Now that I know about it I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen,” she said.
Mike Stafford, who was in the car with Harmon, said it is unnerving to see how many people are texting behind the wheel and swerving in and out of their lanes.
But he admits to picking up the phone every so often to reply to a text message. “I’m a single parent, I’ve got kids at home, they text me all the time,” he said.
Tim Olmsted of Portland is in favor of the ban but is skeptical it will do any good without aggressive police enforcement. During his commute across the city, he sees at least 20 drivers using their phones.
“It’s scary,” Olmsted said. Even an avowed opponent of distracted driving slips up sometimes.
“I don’t even have a smartphone, but there are times when I’m driving and someone calls me, I’ll pick it up,” Olmsted said.
Maine joins 20 other states, the District of Colombia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands in requiring drivers to use hands-free devices behind the wheel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
With the passage of Maine’s hands-free requirement, signed into law last week by Gov. Janet Mills, Massachusetts is the only New England state without a statewide law, according to the conference.
Holding a cellphone while driving was outlawed in Vermont five years ago, but Keith Flynn still counts four or five drivers on their phones during his morning commute to Vermont’s highway safety office.
Most drivers understand what they are doing is wrong, but haven’t quit entirely, said Flynn, director of the office’s behavioral safety unit. That’s true for other violations, such as speeding and driving under the influence, he added.
“Most people who get pulled over and ticketed for it, 9 out of 10 will say ‘I know, I shouldn’t be doing this,'” Flynn said. “The education piece is there, but not everyone is saying ‘Oh, I just have to stop this.'”
Drivers in states with hands-free laws have witnessed a drop in the number of people holding a cellphone while driving, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which tracks research into the topic.
However, it is not clear if the laws make roads any safer.
“It’s a mixed bag, we don’t have clear evidence that the laws reduce crashes,” Rader said. “I think the way we would summarize it is that distracted driving is a big problem and it goes beyond cellphones.”