Daily Catch

New hands-free driving law takes effect on Thursday

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On September 19th, many bills passed during the First Regular Session of the 129th Legislature will become law. While several of these laws will affect the day-to-day life of Maine citizens, one new law in particular is receiving the most attention. LD 165 will prohibit drivers from using their cell phones or other handheld electronic devices while driving.

Maine currently has a law on the books that prohibits texting while operating a motor vehicle. However, law enforcement says its difficult to discern texting violations from other uses that are not currently prohibited by state law. LD 165 would ban the use of handheld electronic devices while driving to make it easier for law enforcement to stop individuals who are using their phones, instead of focusing solely on texting.

This ban applies to all drivers operating a motor vehicle, even if stopped at traffic lights, stop signs or stuck in traffic — holding an electronic device while driving is simply prohibited. Of course, as with most laws, LD 165 includes some exceptions: 

  • The use of a hand-held device to contact law enforcement and emergency personnel during emergency circumstances is permitted
  • The use of a device in hands-free mode would be permitted
  • The use of a handheld device is permitted if the person is employed as a commercial driver or a school bus driver and is using the handheld device within the scope of the person’s employment as permitted under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations
  • Personal medical devices such as insulin pumps and heart monitors are permitted
  • Communications over a citizens band (CB) radio service are permitted

In addition, an individual can use a handheld device if it is mounted or affixed to a location within the car that does not obstruct the driver’s view of the road, and only requires one swipe, tap or push of the operator’s finger. Drivers can also pull over in a safe location to use their devices. 

The fine for noncompliance with the new law will be $50 for the first offense and $250 for second and subsequent offenses. According to the fiscal note attached to the bill, the judicial branch estimates that 1,100 infractions would occur in fiscal year 2019-20 and 5,500 in fiscal year 2020-21. 

While it’s in the state’s interest to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities that occur due to distracted driving, the solution does not need to be a new law or government mandate.

LD 165 is aimed at the minority of drivers operating on roadways in Maine. According to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, a study found that only 6.3 percent of the 13,568 drivers they observed had been holding a phone up to their ear, were manipulating the device in some fashion or were using an in-ear device. Only 3.1 percent of these individuals were texting, reading or dialing on their device. This is slightly above the 5.4 percent figure found in a similar nationwide survey conducted in 2016.

As of June 2019, 19 other states and the District of Columbia had laws that ban the use of handheld devices while driving. While several states are taking steps to reduce distracted driving, there is little evidence to suggest that prohibitions on handheld devices while driving truly reduce the number of crashes that occur on public roadways.

For instance, a literature review of research on cell phone bans found that the evidence is mixed. One study suggests there were no significant reductions in collision claims in four states that implemented the ban, despite evidence of a reduction in the use of handheld devices while driving in three of the four states.

In another study, researchers found that insurance collision claims in areas with high-visibility enforcement did not realize a reduction in crashes reported to insurers when compared to the control areas in other states. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s survey indicated that there was a decline in texting and driving after the enforcement campaigns, crashes did not decline. The Highway Loss Data Institute hypothesized that crashes may not have declined because drivers were distracted by something else, such as holding their phones out of view or another activity.

Regardless of its effectiveness, this ban on handheld devices is another example of the legislature passing feel-good legislation that gives the government more control over Mainers. Instead of enabling prohibitions on specific activities, it may be more beneficial to find a solution through the free market.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety admits that crash avoidance technology might be the “most promising avenue for reducing crash risks related to distractions of any type.” This could be an opportunity for the free market to fully integrate new technology within our vehicles to prevent crashes, instead of relying on new laws and policies that require government intervention and do not solve the problem at hand.

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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