Maine Bill Bars Teens from Chatting While Driving

Maine tenagers who are used to chatting while driving may have to break the habit and leave their cellular phones alone while they’re behind the wheel.

A bill, which has won all-but-final Senate approval after it was approved in the Maine House, prohibits any driver who’s less than 18 years old from operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile phone.

Sponsored by Rep. George Hogan Sr., D-Old Orchard Beach, it was amended to expand the prohibition to any hand-held electronic device that’s not part of a motor vehicle’s operating equipment.

In past years, lawmakers have repeatedly shot down bills to restrict the use of cell phones by drivers. This year, a half dozen legislators submitted proposals to curb what they see as a traffic hazard caused by drivers who become distracted by their mobile phones.

The cell phone industry, citing records from states that require reporting, says cell phone use was a factor in less than 1 percent of all accidents.

As of January, California, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut had banned hand-held phone use by drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado in 2005 banned teens with restricted licenses from talking on cell phones while driving. Some states have targeted other motorists such as bus drivers.

Critics have countered that if laws are going to be passed to restrict cell phone use, they should also address other distractions such as eating and applying makeup.

That’s the focus of a separate bill that’s also gaining ground in the State House. The bill initially focused only on cellular phones. As amended, the Department of Public Safety’s study must include the effect of all distractions on traffic accidents.

The department would have to submit an interim report that includes recommended legislation to strengthen laws related to prevent distracted driving by January 15, 2009. A final report would be due a year later. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk.