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Legislation would ratchet up penalties for Maine drivers caught using handheld devices

Linda Coan O'Kresik
Bangor Daily News
Orono, ME -- September 19, 2019 -- Orono police Officer Adam Oko patrolled for drivers on cell phones Thursday, the day the hands-free law went into effect in Maine. "It's better to get a bluetooth phone and put the phone down than getting a ticket," Oko said. Officer Oko issued this driver a warning and informed him of the new law.

Maine drivers caught using a handheld electronic device, such as a cell phone, could face significantly higher penalties under a new bill being considered by state lawmakers. But opponents are skeptical that the proposal will have the desired effect.

Maine's current prohibition on handheld devices was enacted four years ago as a way of beefing up enforcement of the texting ban that preceded it.

But critics contend that the current penalties aren't enough of a deterrent, citing last year's 3,100 distracted driving accidents that resulted in 1,100 injuries and 11 deaths.

They argue that penalties should be increased, from a $50 fine up to $500 for the first offense, $250 to $1,000 for the second offense, and a revoked license for a third.

Bureau of Motor Vehicles deputy secretary Cathy Curtis testified against the bill before the Legislature's transportation committee Wednesday, telling lawmakers that the first-offense fine alone is far too high and disproportionate to other serious driving infractions such as passing a stopped school bus or emergency vehicle.

"That's higher than other first offense for a traffic infraction. In fact, it's higher than or roughly equivalent to the base fine for many traffic crimes," Curtis said.

The Maine State Police took a neutral position on the bill, although Lt. Bruce Scott of the traffic enforcement division told the committee that steeper penalties are not always an effective deterrent.

The proposal, submitted at the request of a constituent of Democratic Rep. Stanley Zeigler, will be further vetted by the transportation committee before going to the House and Senate for votes.