Legislature considers big hike in fines for distracted driving
Feb. 24—Legislators will likely get an earful Tuesday on a proposal to hike the fines for using mobile phones while driving.
A bill submitted by state Rep. Stanley Paige Zeigler, a Montville Democrat, would increase the penalty for using a hand-held electronic device or mobile phone while operating a motor vehicle from $50 to $500 for a first offense.
It would hike the fine from $250 to $1,000 for a second offense and add revocation of someone's driver's license for subsequent offenses. A Tuesday hearing before the Transportation Committee will examine the issue.
Meryl Poulin, an Auburn attorney, said in written testimony that too many people "have been devastated by someone else's distracted driving."
The proposal to beef up the penalty, the lawyer said, "is about providing a consequence for an action. A penalty to be paid by a person who engages in dangerous behavior. And there's no question that's how it should be."
"The harsh truth of distracted driving," Poulin said, "is that it is very often the completely innocent drivers paying the most severe penalties."
But Nick Murray, policy director of the Maine Policy Institute, said the bill would also "give police greater license to accost Maine people on the roads, backed up by punitive fines."
He said there is no question the measure aims to make roadways safer, particularly since "many drivers are unsafely using electronic devices" behind the wheel.
"The question is whether the law itself or the fine is a sufficient deterrent," Murray said in his submitted testimony.
Besides, he asked, "What if someone who can barely afford to get to work and back is ticketed $500 and cannot pay it? That person can become trapped in the negative cycle of late fees and summons. Is this what the Mainers barely making ends meet really need from their government?"
Poulin cited a case from 2021 where a married couple were driving in their family car. At a bend in the road, the attorney said, they were met "with the blaring headlights of another vehicle" that had crossed over the centerline, headed straight for them.
The collision threw the husband out of the car, leaving half his body dangling from a window. The wife survived with her legs crushed.
"She lost her independence, her high school sweetheart, the hopes and plans she'd made for her life. Her kids lost their dad, her grandkids lost their grandfather, and this family lost its breadwinner," Poulin said.
"Why? Because the driver who crossed the centerline was distracted by an electronic device."
"He drifted across the centerline and never even hit the brakes," Poulin said.
It was one of 2,841 crashes in 2021 where someone in the United States died because of distracted driving, Poulin said.
Poulin said the Central Maine death she described was "entirely avoidable. Entirely. There is never any reason that anyone needs to be engaging with a device while they are driving. Ever."
Poulin said the proposal "increases the penalty for the people who should be paying the penalty. If that serves to deter those people from engaging in distracted driving, it will mean fewer instances of innocent people paying the penalty — innocent people like the ones I've described — who paid a penalty they should have never had to pay."
Murray said, though, that legislators need to "resist these and other efforts to punitively punish Mainers for low-level offenses."
The hearing on the bill, where anyone can testify, is slated for 1 p.m. Tuesday in Room 126 at the State House. Written testimony on LD 145 can also be submitted through the Legislature's website.