AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are considering a proposal to exempt police, fire and rescue personnel from a state ban on texting while driving.
No one actually is arguing that police officers should be allowed to send or read text messages while speeding to a traffic accident or crime scene, however.
“Texting and driving is a deadly combination,” Norway Police Chief Robert Federico said during a public hearing in front of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday. “We don’t believe police officers should be texting any more than the average citizen.”
Tederico said the exemption is needed because a strict interpretation of the current law means officers can’t even pull over to the shoulder of a highway or park at the scene of a traffic accident and use their laptop computers to get information about a crime in progress or a motorist’s driving record. The law doesn’t specifically say texting is OK if you are idling in a parking lot or on the side of the road.
“Right now, we’re interpreting this as we can’t do” that, Federico said.
The bill, L.D. 1808, was sponsored by House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, who admitted he wasn’t sure if the exemption was the best way to fix the problem in the current law. There may be legitimate safety reasons that a police officer needs to read a message on his or her computer, and there is concern that the law is too restrictive, he said.
The idea of simply exempting police officers and fire and rescue personnel from the texting ban raised questions from legislators and others Tuesday.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the issue came up when the texting ban he proposed became law last year. Police officers, who may need to race to an emergency and weave through traffic, were intentionally included in the ban, he said.
“The speeds are higher and there is more risk,” Diamond said.
Lawmakers also did not want the ban to apply only to moving vehicles because many accidents occur after motorists begin texting conversations when stopped at a red light and then drive away, still distracted, he said.
However, the law clearly has been aimed at getting motorists to pull out of traffic and stop their cars before reading or responding to a text message, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
“The purpose of the law is to pull over and not drive and text,” Schwartz said.
The chiefs’ association decided to take no stand on the proposal and doesn’t believe the current law needs to be fixed, Scwartz said.
“It’s a safety issue. The police can have an accident like anybody else can. We’re trying to get people to comply,” he said. “We don’t think we should have any special privileges.”
Schwartz said that while police chiefs don’t want their officers using texting devices while driving, most aren’t worried that the law prevents officers — or any other motorists — from pulling over and texting.
“If they are pulled off the side of the road, they are not driving,” he said.
John Richardson — 620-7016