July 09, 2020

Bills target cell phone use in cars Accidents spur 2 legislators

AUGUSTA – After receiving mounting constituent complaints about inattentive drivers who are distracted by hand-held cellular phones, two Maine lawmakers have sponsored separate bills banning their use in cars and trucks.

Reps. Joseph E. Brooks, D-Winterport, and Gerald E. Bouffard, D-Lewiston, have submitted their proposals to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. After watching a similar bill die in committee two years ago, Bouffard is hopeful that his LD 102 will be taken more seriously in light of increasing accident statistics citing cell phone use as a factor.

Brooks’ bill, LD 95, is more far-reaching than that of his Lewiston seatmate. Both proposals would permit the use of hands-free accessories for cell phones in motor vehicles and make using hand-held phones a traffic infraction. Brooks also would exclude a motorist’s use of other hand-held electronic devices such as two-way radios, CB radios, computers and tape recorders.

Although Brooks would allow exemptions for commercial drivers, public transit workers and emergency service workers, Bouffard would not, insisting all motorists should be subject to the same provisions of the law. While acknowledging that cell phone use is becoming an increasing accident factor, Maine law enforcement officials were not excited about supporting the earlier ban because of perceived difficulties in enforcing the law.

In fact, the current director of the Maine Department of Public Safety became a high-profile figure in the debate last year in Portland when the car he was operating slammed into another vehicle driven by one of the department’s detectives. Kelly told reporters that the incident would not fall within the scope of the proposed legislation since he was not technically holding the phone at the time and was simply pushing keypad buttons to dial a number.

Regardless of the details of the Kelly case, Brooks said there are plenty of other motor vehicle accidents that could be avoided if motorists would pay more attention to their primary job behind the wheel: driving.

“For not very much money, they can easily go out and purchase the attachments that will provide a microphone and speaker,” he said, adding that he has such accessories in his own car.

If driver inattention is at the core of the issue Brooks is trying to address, some might question the lawmaker’s decision to draw the line at communication devices. Women applying makeup, men reading maps, others who peruse newspapers and paperback books or consume cheeseburgers from fast-food restaurants all are compromising their driving concentration.

“I’m not silly enough to think that you can’t drink your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or eat a Big Mac,” Brooks said. “I’m talking about devices that distract the driver. We had an accident in Glenburn where cell phone use apparently put five people in the hospital.”

Rep. Charles D. Fisher, D-Brewer, will hear both bills when they are presented to his committee later this year. He recalled that the last time the bill came up, it wasn’t clear there was any conclusive evidence linking accidents to cell phone use.

“I understand there’s a couple of areas in the country that have already outlawed them and we’ll see what they have to say about it,” Fisher said. “There’s no doubt it’s an issue. When you see people driving down the interstate with a cell phone in one hand, waving the other hand while they’re talking and going 75 miles per hour, it’s kind of scary.”

With five new members on the Transportation Committee, some lawmakers said it would be difficult to venture a guess as to how the measure is likely to be received this year. Sen. Bill O’Gara, a Westbrook Democrat who serves as the committee’s chairman, said the bill submitted two years ago was lobbied hard by the cell phone companies who cited numerous examples of motorists who had called in accidents and crimes in progress while on the highway. But this year’s measures are not outright bans, so those same arguments will not apply.

“There are a lot of people who feel that if one is going to use a cell phone, they should pull off to the side of the road or use a hands-free phone,” O’Gara said. “I have no idea on how it’s going to go or even where I’m going to be on it at this time.”

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