July 09, 2020

House rejects cell phone ban effort Panel unable to verify accident arguments

AUGUSTA – An hour’s worth of floor speeches Thursday couldn’t save a bill aimed at banning hand-held cellular phones from moving vehicles as House members voted 108-35 to oppose the measure.

Rep. Gerald N. Bouffard, D-Lewiston, cast the only vote for his bill when the initiative was presented to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee last month. At that time, representatives of Maine’s cellular phone industry were outnumbered in their opposition to the bills by amateur or ham radio enthusiasts who saw the legislation as a major infringement on their hobby.

Despite arguments that cell phones and other electronic devices that can be used in motor vehicles continue to contribute to accident rates, the committee was unable to verify those allegations because the Maine Department of Public Safety does not record that specific data. While the committee was not supportive of either bill, the panel did draft a letter asking the Maine State Police to note items such as cell phones when they contribute to driver inattention that results in an accident.

Bouffard argued Thursday that a similar bill he sponsored two years ago was ahead of its time, even though it also was defeated by a wide margin. Evidence abounds, he said, to prove cell phone use on the highway has increased the number of accidents in Maine.

“I don’t own a cell phone,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything that’s that important for me to be using a phone – especially while I’m driving. I’m a bad enough driver without that kind of thing to do. I don’t need any help.”

Bouffard was supported in his efforts to save the legislation by Rep. Joseph E. Brooks, D-Winterport, who sponsored related legislation that would have banned motorists’ use of a variety of hand-held devices, including cell phones, Dictaphones and citizen band radios. That bill was killed by the Transportation Committee.

“I don’t stand here today and say that 100 percent of the people using cell phones ought to be banned from doing that,” Brooks said. “And I didn’t say that they’re the ones who are contributing to all the accidents. But what is the value of one child’s life, one accident or one person seriously injured?

Former law enforcement officers now serving in the House assumed competing stances on the bill. Rep. Paul J. Lessard, D-Topsham and former police chief in that community, said driver inattention is responsible for many accidents and that allowing young driver education students to use a cell phone while telling them that driving is a full-time job sends conflicting messages to the teen-agers.

But Rep. Edgar Wheeler, a Bridgewater Democrat and former Aroostook County sheriff, urged his seatmates to adopt a common-sense approach to the issue of cell phone use.

“There’s no evidence in any form in the state of Maine that tells us that accidents were caused by people driving with cell phones,” he said. “But if we search hard enough, we can find some. But what about all the other things that distract drivers, like turning the radio on, eating, talking to someone else in the car or reading?”

Still, some lawmakers insisted the issue of irresponsible cell phone use in the state is onewhose time had arrived, particularly with the onslaught of summer tourists. Rep. Thomas Murphy, R-Kennebunk, said that from May to October, local drivers in his community needed to look twice at intersections to see what kind of plates were attached to oncoming cars.

“If it’s a Massachusetts plate, you wait 10 or 15 seconds cause you know they’re going go right through [the intersection],” he said. “It becomes even more complicated if you see their hand is cupped to their ear. You learn very quickly not to budge an inch ’cause they’re blasting through – they haven’t got a clue.”

Acknowledging there are no issues that are not so pressing that they cannot be revisited later, Rep. Charles Fisher, D-Brewer, said this was simply “not the time” for such restrictive legislation. Fisher, who serves as the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, hopes more detailed police reporting on cell phone use in conjunction with highway accidents will provide more information for the Legislature.

“Ideas can be revisited,” he said. “If we have evidence that this has become a major problem the next time around, we can take a different approach to it.”

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