MADAWASKA, Maine — The month of April is Distracted Driving Awareness month and local police departments are teaming up with safety organizations to ensure drivers keep their eyes on the road and getting creative in the process.
More than 3,100 people lost their lives due to distracted driving in the United States in 2020 alone. In addition, distracted driving results in more than 3,446 crashes, 535 injuries and approximately 45 deaths in Maine per year, according to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.
Though many may read “distracted driving” and immediately make the connection with phones, it also includes reaching for an item that fell to the floor and attending to children or pets in the vehicle, among any other activity that takes the driver’s eyes off the road.
“Distracted driving comes with a multitude of behaviors,” Officer Dennis Picard of the Madawaska Police Department said. “A lot of people think you can have a dog on your lap while driving. That’s actually a violation if that dog causes you to be distracted and cause an accident.”
Distracted driving can be from eating or drinking while driving, or even from watching youtube. Those are all secondary offenses, so if those behaviors impair you to the point where you’re a risk to other drivers, then you can be charged with distracted driving, so it’s not just use of your cell phone,” he said.
Picard said that even using a cell phone while a vehicle is not moving on the road could land a hefty fine on the vehicle’s operator.
“Anytime you’re on a public way, if you’re at a stop sign or waiting in a line of traffic, it is still a violation of the distracted driving laws to be using or handling your cell phone to receive or pass messages via text,” Picard said.
The safest way to do it, is to pull to the side of the road, stop the vehicle and talk on the cell phone or whatever the non-driving activity is, he said.
Local law enforcement agencies, like the Madawaska Police Department, are teaming up with the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to keep the public informed on distracted driving and cracking down on those not paying attention behind the wheel by conducting high visibility enforcement details, according to a post made by the Madawaska Police Department on Facebook.
“High visibility enforcement to me is the advertising that we’ve done. I also put a public bulletin board at the high school — I put all the motor vehicle laws including distracted driving laws on it to further deter kids from participating in this kind of behavior,” Picard said. “The Facebook post was another public notice for folks just to say that we’re out and about. We’re trying to cover all of our bases and get the message out there.”
Covering their bases can include some undercover strategies. While many people will be on the lookout for officers in marked cruisers, few may expect covert stake-outs at busy intersections.
“We have some unique patrol strategies that we’re employing this year,” Picard said. “We are observing driver behavior sometimes from our personal owned vehicles while working. We can be at an intersection standing in plain clothes and calling out vehicle descriptions and plates to chase vehicles to make sure we have a good view of what people are doing. We’ve gone so far as to observe from within buildings at busy intersections with binoculars to see if people are on their cell phones while driving. It’s not just the marked police cruiser that’s looking. We could be anywhere. We’re serious about this. We’re trying to prevent tragedy. We’re trying to prevent death.”
To avoid distracted driving, the Bureau of Highway Safety encourages drivers not to engage in social media while driving and that if you’ve developed a habit of checking your phone on the road to use your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” feature or put the phone in an inaccessible location like the trunk, back seat or glove box.
If you are driving with a passenger, try enlisting them to deal with any distractions in the car or make them the designated texter.
For drivers either stopped in the roadway (not pulled over) or moving while talking on the phone, a fine for a first-time offense could have them dishing out $85. For second or subsequent offenses, the fine is $325. Texting while driving will result in a much larger fine of $325 for the first offense and $625 for the second and subsequent offenses. The fines may also be accompanied by the suspension of the driver’s license after the second offense.
Though hands-free devices are permitted by law for drivers 18 and older, Picard said drivers under 18 using them are in violation of the distracted driving laws.
“If somebody needs help in hooking their phone up to the hands-free device in their vehicle, they can stop by the PD and we would certainly love to help them out with it,” Picard said. “We go to great pains at the Madawaska Police department to promote driver safety and keep our good citizens from being injured or killed in a needless accident.”
Law enforcement agencies in Maine started looking out for distracted drivers on April 7 as part of the statewide campaign.