State of Maine: Hands on the wheel, head in the game, please

After a string of sparkling but brisk days, wham, it’s summer again. The sun stayed out and the thermometer rose, delighting the tourists who choose fall for vacation time. The little people have returned to school so the crowds, at least on weekdays, are generally an older demographic and a bit more subdued than the families with gamboling young’uns.

Still, the native population Downeast must exercise caution as sun-struck and oblivious visitors fill the sidewalks and meander around in the streets, eyes glued to cell phones as they follow their GPS to the perfect lobster roll.

There is not yet a fine for distracted walking, though such a proposal might be well-received in Vacationland, but Maine has now joined the ranks of states banning the use of handheld devices when behind the wheel. According to the National Traffic Safety Administration, in the United States there are approximately nine deaths and 1,000 injuries per day attributable to distracted driving.

Once upon a time there were fewer distractions for a driver. There was the radio, a low-level distraction, and then there were the creative ideas of the driving community, including such activities as eating, drinking coffee, shaving, applying make-up or arguing with passengers. Now the possibilities are legion, ranging from phone calls to GPS to watching movies on a smartphone. Dumb.

A blog at identifies the 10 top driving distractions. Calling on data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, it reveals the contributions of various distractions to vehicular fatalities.

Lighting or extinguishing a cigarette, moving objects in the car (kids, pets, airborne objects) or adjusting devices or controls (seat belts, mirrors) each represent 1 percent of accidents resulting in fatalities.

The next three categories are each responsible for 2 percent of fatal accidents: adjusting audio or climate controls, eating or drinking and using or reaching for a device brought into the car. “Reaching for.” Good to know. From there the rate more than doubles, to 5 percent for distractions from other people in the vehicle and up to 7 percent for “looking at something or someone outside the car.”

The second highest cause is cell phone use, responsible for 12 percent of accidents. This includes hands-free use, too, so even “Look, Ma, no hands!” is not a complete solution to accidents caused by cell phone distractions.

That leaves public enemy number one when it comes to distracted driving, and that is one that has not changed since the dawn of driving. A whopping 62 percent of distracted driving fatalities are caused by drivers allowing their minds to wander — to be “lost in thought.” The SafeStart site identifies “complacency” as the cause of driver inattention absent the causes noted above and suggests “rushing, frustration and fatigue” as compounding the problem.

Mind you, there are plenty of other collections of “10 mosts” when it comes to the causes of distracted driving. Among them are one compiled by personal injury attorneys, one by Environmental Health and Safety, which administers occupational health and safety policies, and one by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Injury Center.

The CDC names three categories of distraction: visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel) or cognitive (taking your mind off of driving).

This is a handy way to screen yourself when behind the wheel: eyes on, hands on, head on, action. Says the CDC: Five seconds with your eyes off the road at 55 mph will take you the length of a football field.

The restriction in Maine applies to “any handheld electronic device … that is not part of the operating equipment of the motor vehicle …” GPS and navigating systems are not included. The ban is in force when a vehicle is “temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic light or a stop sign.” This is not just about yakking on the phone; it covers text-messaging as well. If the driver has pulled “to the side of, or off, a public way … where the vehicle can safely remain stationary” he or she is free to text or call at will.

Maine’s legislation took effect last week and calls for a fine of at least $50 for a first offense and at least $250 for subsequent offenses. A district court judge originally set the first-time fine at $230, but that amount was reduced to $85 by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley to reflect legislative intent. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Diamond, concurred with that adjustment. The lower first-time fine will be in effect until the Legislature reconvenes and considers whether to make it permanent or to set it at some other amount.

A little more focus and a little less distraction, people, and you may avoid a lifetime of regret. The fine for a violation is the least of it. Eyes on, hands on and head in gear before you go.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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