Maine bill would bar teen cell phone use while driving

| Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Truckers in Maine soon might have one less thing to worry about while trekking through the state.

A bill won approval in the House that would ban the state’s youngest drivers from chatting on the phone while behind the wheel. Shortly thereafter, Senate lawmakers voted in favor of the prohibition.

Another effort before lawmakers to limit distractions for all drivers didn’t fare as well.

Sponsored by Rep. George Hogan, D-Old Orchard Beach, the bill to prohibit drivers under age 18 from using any cell phone, hand-held or “hands free,” was expanded to include any electronic device that’s not part of a motor vehicle’s operating equipment.

Teens could only get pulled over for violating the rule if they committed another traffic offense. Violators would face at least $50 fines.

Maine law now mandates that drivers licensed at age 16 cannot use cell phones while driving for the first six months.

“Kids are kids, Hogan told the Bangor Daily News. “When you place a distraction in front of them they’re going to act like kids.”

The legislative activity in Maine follows a National Transportation Safety Board report that recommended novice drivers be prohibited from using cell phones while on the road.

The Safety Board says that young drivers account for only 7 percent of the driving population but are involved in 15 percent of fatal accidents. Distracted drivers take 1.5 seconds longer to respond to hazards, the agency says.

Currently, 13 states forbid young drivers to use phones while behind the wheel. Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are the only other states that have bans on all drivers from using hand-held phones. Laws in California and Washington are slated to take effect in 2008.

The Maine bill – LD161 – needs to pass one more vote in the Senate before it can advance to Gov. John Baldacci’s desk.

While legislation targeting novice drivers is moving forward, another bill – LD114 – has been killed in committee that would have prohibited all drivers from using hand-held cell phones. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” accessory would still have been permitted.

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

Another bill that is on the move would help officials better understand the role cell phone use plays in crashes. Sponsored by Rep. Chris Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, the bill would direct state troopers to ask drivers at crash scenes if they were distracted by phone use.

The Department of Public Safety would study the results to determine what, if any, actions need to be taken to make the state’s roadways safer.

The bill – LD576 – is awaiting final consideration in the Senate before it can advance to the governor’s desk.

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