October 13, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Cops handcuffed despite tougher texting law

Little did the young woman know, as she sailed down Interstate 295 tapping away on her smartphone, that the guy trying to get her attention from the passing lane was the chief of the Maine State Police.

“She’s obviously texting,” recalled Col. Robert Williams. “So I say, ‘I’m going to slow down and at least give her a hand gesture to knock it off.’ ”

She never so much as looked up. Williams, on his way to a troop inspection in South Portland in tandem with another state police unit, decided to keep moving – at which point the officer behind him also noticed the woman’s inattention.

“So her head’s been down 20 or 30 seconds while all of this transpires,” Williams said. “And she’s still texting.”

Finally, the other officer pulled the woman over.

Her response: “I wasn’t texting. I was making a phone call!”

Beyond issuing a warning, there was nothing the officer could do.

“The law allows you to dial a number,” lamented Williams. “It also allows you to use GPS devices.”

All of which raised an obvious question as Maine’s tougher anti-texting statute took effect last week: Is it tough enough?

If you drive, you’ve been there: You’re sitting at a stop light that turns green and the car in front of you doesn’t budge because the driver, head down, is lost in the wonders of modern technology.

Or you’re driving down a rural road when the car coming toward you suddenly veers over the center line, leaving you only seconds to honk your horn and swerve to avoid a head-on collision.

Or perhaps you’ve been lost in that little screen yourself, reading that message from home and quickly tapping out “OK” while you traverse the equivalent of a football field with your eyes (and your mind) off the road.

“I’m sort of weaning myself by turning the phone off altogether,” admitted Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in an interview Friday. “Because I’m as guilty as anybody else. And I’m going to end up in the woods upside-down.”

Maine’s new ban on texting while driving, passed by the Legislature last spring, ups the fine for a first-time offense from $100 to $250.

Beyond that, additional infractions within a three-year period will earn you a $500 fine and a mandatory, non-appealable license suspension of 30 days for the second offense, 60 days for the third and 90 days for the fourth and subsequent violations.

Changes for the better, to be sure. After all, alarmed as we might be about the crisis in Washington, D.C., and the end of democracy as we know it, how often do we stop and consider that we’re all but one text message – ours or someone else’s – away from the end, period?

“You don’t set out every morning to go wherever it is that you’re going and think, ‘Oh, this might be my last day,’ ” noted Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. “But the fact is that’s what happens to a lot of people as a result of someone’s actions.”

Yet even as the safety bureau rolls out a campaign against distracted driving of all types (that includes you, makeup artist rolling through a stop sign), law enforcement types find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to making the new law stick.

Portland police recently fanned out over Maine’s largest city in an undercover attempt to catch people in the act of texting – unmarked cars manned by two officers did the snooping while cruisers waited nearby to make the bust. According to Assistant Chief Vern Malloch, the operation resulted in five summonses.

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