The Department of Public Safety has launched a multipronged effort to beef up enforcement of the state’s distracted driving laws and increase public awareness about the dangers of risky behavior behind the wheel. In Maine, over the last three years, 41 highway deaths have been attributed to distracted driving. And state troopers are seeing widespread violations of distracted driving laws.
Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, says some of the additional enforcement actions are already underway. One new tactic involves posting troopers on interstate overpasses to watch for violations and then radioing ahead to troopers on the road, who then pull over suspected offenders. Williams says some of the violations so far include people talking on cellphones, texting, reading newspapers and one man playing his guitar.
“We had four troopers out there, one trooper calling them off," Williams says. "We couldn’t write enough tickets. To say that probably every third vehicle on the interstate that went under was distracted or doing something they shouldn’t have done. It’s just unbelievable.”
Williams says enforcement patrols will be bolstered with a federal grant of $239,000 to cover the cost of overtime. State police are also taking a step beyond unmarked police cars to catch offenders.
“We’ve partnered with some trucking companies," Williams says. "We’ll be riding in their tractor-trailers looking for distracted drivers.“
And Williams says troopers will also be partnering with local police departments in urban areas to have law enforcement officers watching drivers at intersections and when stopped at traffic lights to make sure they are not engaging in distracted behavior.
Loren Stewart, director of the Bureau of Highway Safety, says part of the effort will also be increased advertising beyond radio and TV public service announcements, with 16 signs on the sides of large trucks from three different trucking companies.
“Large billboards that are both moving and stationary at any given time during the day," Stewart says. "They are moving down 295, they are all over the state from Presque Isle to Portland and they are also stopped at local stores.”
Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt says the DOT will be erecting large signs in work zones urging drivers to keep their focus on the construction area and the workers that are near or on the road.
“We average close to 500 per year of crashes within work zones," Bernhardt says. "This last year, 2013, luckily we had no fatalities.”
He says there have been fatalities in past years. Gov. Paul LePage told reporters he believes it will take tougher penalties to convince many drivers that law enforcement is taking the problem seriously. But he says fines, which can be more than $300 a ticket for some infractions, are not enough.
“If you make it too high, than police officers are reluctant to issue fines and then we just send them on the road," LePage says. "I think we probably are going to have to start looking at giving them a vacation from driving.”
LePage promised his administration would have proposals ready for the new legislature to consider that would toughen the penalties for distracted driving, and clarify the existing distracted driving law so it is easier for law enforcement to use.