State and local law enforcement officials said a distracted driving law change could make finding offenders easier and help change a culture that accepts dangerous driving habits.
After Sept. 19, anyone caught holding a mobile phone or another electronic device while driving could be subject to fines $50 to $250. Gov. Janet Mills signed L.D. 165, titled “An Act To Prohibit the Use of Handheld Phones and Devices While Driving,” into law on June 27.
Maine State Police Lt. Bruce Scott said distracted driving has been illegal since 2009, and texting while driving has been illegal since 2011, but police have had trouble enforcing the law. He said initial laws allowed texting, as long as it was not distracting the driver while the driver committed another violation.
The 2011 changes made texting while driving illegal, but law enforcement had difficulty proving that those accused were texting instead of engaging in a permitted use, such as navigating or changing music.
Augusta police Chief Jared Mills called the new law a “breath of fresh air.” He said some cases of distracted driving are dropped once they go to court because it is hard to prove a person is texting without officers going through their phone’s message archive or the suspect admits texting.
“It’s right up there with drinking and driving (in terms of danger),” Mills said. “We don’t want people distracted driving, period.”
The new law, Scott said, will be easier to enforce because officers just need to see the device in someone’s hand and won’t have to rely on “he said, she said” arguments to get convictions.
“It’s just going to take away that argument,” he said. “We’re going to photograph you when you’re holding your device (and say) we saw their thumb manipulating it.”
Mills said his department conducted 212 details in 2017 and 2018, using 856 staff hours. During those details, officers stopped 918 cars, issuing 332 warnings, with 681 summonses or arrests. Some drivers were issued warnings and summonses.
This year Augusta police have conducted 58 details, using 233 staff hours. During that time, officers have stopped 220 cars, issuing 33 warnings and producing 207 summonses and arrests. Distracted-driving details are funded by federal grants, according to Mills.
Staff Sgt. Frank Hatch, of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, said it’s challenging for some deputies to see whether a driver is using a cellphone because the deputy might be passing the driver at a high rate of speed. Hatch said some details use one deputy to detect drivers using their cellphones and radio ahead to deputies to perform a traffic stop farther up the road. He said it’s not as effective in rural areas of the state.
Now, Scott said, the details are going to be easier because stopping alleged violators would not require the same burden of proof that the current law requires.
Mills agreed, and said violators of distracted driving laws would be as easy to see as people not wearing seat belts. He said seat belt details are straightforward; if you see someone not wearing their seat belt, the person is in violation of the law.
Scott said he expects the law to be enforced aggressively within the first two years, but violations would taper off as culture changes. He said state police were struggling with distracted driving within their ranks, as troopers commonly would use their phones and keep their onboard laptops open while driving.
He said a policy was enacted to keep their laptops closed while driving, but state police eventually installed software to turn off the laptop’s display at speeds higher than 10 mph.
“We’ve changed that culture, but it took that extra step,” Scott said. “It took us 10 years to really change the culture and behavior.”
The new law could be that extra step for other drivers, he said, and could go a long way in discouraging distracted driving. Scott added that the culture around drunken driving has changed so much that people will “get into fistfights” before letting a loved one drive drunk. He said he hopes something similar will happen with distracted driving.
“This is just another tool in the tool belt to give law enforcement to discourage (distracted driving),” he said. “We want people to get back to just driving.”
Scott added that laws can’t get much stricter after Sept. 19, but technology could play a bigger part in discouraging distracted driving. Some mobile phones offer settings that delay notifications when someone is moving over certain speeds, but those settings can be disabled easily. He said technology companies have no incentive to change their policies or practices until federal law puts pressure on them.
Mills said Augusta police also participate in educational exercises to discourage distracted driving, such as taking vehicles that crashed during distracted driving to schools to illustrate the worst-case scenarios.
The Portland Press Herald reported that about 3,200 people were killed nationwide in 2017 in crashes caused by distracted driving — about 9 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Some experts think the number is underreported, according to a 2017 Press Herald report, because some of those who crashed their cars would not admit having used their phones just before a crash.