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GPS Regulation Proposal Divides Maine Congressional Delegation

Tom Porter

WASHINGTON - As part of the proposed budget for the Department of Transportation, the Obama administration is asking for authority to regulate use of GPS devices in vehicles to improve public safety. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation give the proposal mixed reviews.

Using GPS devices, whether dash-mounted or in a cell phone, would be limited by federal regulations under the proposal because of safety issues raised by their use. Talking on a cell phone, texting, eating, reading a map and using a GPS device to get directions are all activities police and safety advocates say distract drivers and can lead to serious, and sometimes deadly, accidents.

Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree says she is concerned about government telling her what she can and cannot do, but in this case she agrees tougher regulations may be needed.

"I think it is appropriate to look at whether there should be a warning on it, or how we should suggest people do it, because transportation safety is important to all of us," Pingree says. "The person who, you know, slides out of their lane is the one who hits your car. So I think it is a critical thing, and I am glad they are looking at it."

Republican Sen. Susan Collins says, while safety education programs are important, she is concerned about adding to the federal bureaucracy. Collins says establishing rules may be good in theory but the practical effect may be something else.

"This strikes me as an example of regulatory overreach by the department," Collins says. "First of all, I think that these GPS devices enable us to avoid congestion, to not be looking at maps when we should be driving."

Collins points out many GPS devices, both in phones and in stand-alone devices, provide audio directions to the driver and are safer than a person looking at a map. Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud is concerned the regulations DOT would implement will wind up as state mandates that are not warranted.

"I’m against the federal government putting that mandate back on the states that they have to regulate the GPS systems," Michaud says. "And I would be opposed to it as part of the package."

Michaud says, while safety has to be a concern, he is worried about the privacy issues that could develop from regulations mandated by DOT on manufacturers or on the states.

Independent Sen. Angus King agrees with Collins that the devices may help avoid distracted driving, and he also agrees with Michaud that the states should be taking the lead on dealing with traffic safety issues.

"One of my issues down there is, is enough, is too much regulation in Washington," King says, "and this strikes me as one where, a: the technology will always be ahead of the regulators; and b: the states, I think, can do it."

The future of the proposal is far from certain. It was not included in the short-term transportation funding bill passed before the August recess, and work has not been completed on the regular transportation legislation for the new federal budget year starting Oct. 1.

Congress is only expected to be in session three weeks in September before recessing for the elections.