AUGUSTA — Responding to a string of recent highway deaths involving Maine’s youngest drivers, Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday signed into law a bill that zeroes in on provisional licenses but also increases fines for any driver who sends texts while behind the wheel.
Lawmakers enacted the bill late in the session that recessed in mid-April and sent it to the governor, who said he’s seen his share of distracted driving from the passenger’s seat of the chief executive’s vehicle. In one case, he and his state trooper driver saw a car careening all over the right-hand lane and they had to get into the passing lane to avoid it.
“It was a teacher correcting exams on the steering wheel,” LePage said.
The bill he signed stemmed from the 16 highway deaths of young drivers since Christmas. In perhaps the worst case, an 18-year-old who had been drinking alcohol and texting friends crashed her car into trees in January, killing two passengers who were 16 and 19 years old.
The new law increases the minimum fine for texting while driving — for anyone behind the wheel, regardless of age — to between $250 and as much as $500. The fine is $100 now.
The other provisions are aimed particularly at drivers with provisional, sometimes called “Cinderella,” licenses. Fines and terms of license suspensions for violating conditions on a juvenile provisional license, such as limits on hours of driving, are increased. The duration for which repeat offenders lose their provisional licenses for violations is also increased, to a maximum of one year. Lawmakers also increased fees to get a provisional license reinstated, and required all provisional drivers whose licenses have been suspended to take a four-hour improvement course as of Jan. 1.
The state attempted to crack down two years ago on distracted driving in general, but it had only limited success, said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who sponsored that bill as well as the latest one.
“I’ve seen on the turnpike coming to Augusta every day people brushing their teeth, shaving, reading. I had one attorney who told me he got through law school by reading his law books as he was on his way up to Augusta,” said Diamond, who as a former secretary of state oversaw motor vehicles regulation.
The distracted driving law was later sharpened last year by a law setting minimum $100 fines specifically for texting while driving, but supporters of the new bill said it still didn’t do enough to fix the problem.
The bill signed Tuesday was prompted by requests from parents and grandparents for stiffer penalties during public forums held in different communities by the current secretary of state, Charlie Summers.
He recalled speaking about the dangers of texting and driving to fifth-graders in a Presque Isle school, where he asked the 75 students to raise their hands if they knew anyone who texted behind the wheel or drove while distracted.
“Every single one of those kids raised their hands,” Summers said.
Since Christmas, there have been more than a dozen crashes resulting in 16 deaths in which the driver was between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the state Bureau of Highway Safety.
While the new law won’t take effect until 90 days after the expected May closing of this legislative session, supporters say they hope it has an early impact on youth driving behavior as spring prom season starts.