Tougher seat belt, cell phone use rules sought in Maine

| 3/27/2007

A pair of bills in the Maine Legislature would permit police to pull over drivers in the state for not wearing their seat belts and prohibit drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones while at the wheel.

Currently, police in the state can ticket drivers for not buckling up only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation, such as speeding or a bad taillight.

A bill offered by Sen. Christine Savage, R-Union, would allow for primary enforcement of the state's seat-belt law. Violators would face $50 fines for a first offense while repeat offenders would be responsible for $125 fines and all subsequent offenses would be $250 fines - the same amounts as existing state law.

The House voted against the measure on a 70-67 vote one week after a 20-14 vote in favor of it in the Senate. Despite the setback in the House additional consideration of the bill is expected.

One likely change to the bill - LD24 - could include phasing in the stricter enforcement to allow for a grace period of six to 12 months before citations could be issued, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Opponents cite personal choice and the potential for racial profiling among the concerns about the stricter enforcement effort. Supporters say saving lives and the lure of federal money should be reason enough to approve the stricter rule.

Failure to approve the bill would prevent the state from cashing in on a one-time payment from the federal government. The 2005 Federal Highway Bill gives any state that adopts tougher seat-belt rules or achieves a belt usage rate of 85 percent one-time grant money equal to 500 percent of the highway funding they received in 2003.

Maine has a seat-belt usage rate of nearly 76 percent.

There are 25 states without a primary seat-belt law. Twenty-four states allow police to pull over drivers solely for not wearing their seat belts. New Hampshire is the only state without a mandatory seat-belt law.

The bill in Maine has the support of Gov. John Baldacci, the Press Herald reported.

It's less clear, however, how the governor feels about a bill to prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Talking on a phone equipped with a "hands-free" accessory would still be permitted.

Sponsored by Rep. Robert Berube, R-Lisbon, the bill would make exceptions for certain persons operating motor vehicles within the scope of their employment. Among the groups that are included in the category are holders of commercial driver's licenses.

Violators would face at least $50 fines. Repeat offenders would face at least $250 fines.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. In 2008, California is slated to implement its own rule.

Supporters of the effort say that studies show how cell phones distract drivers and lead to vehicle wrecks. However, more studies show that hands-free and hand-held phones are equally distracting.

Opponents of cell phone restrictions also say that talking on cell phones is no more distracting than eating, drinking or changing radio stations while driving.

Berube's bill - LD114 - is in the Joint Committee on Transportation.