AUGUSTA — A sweeping bill that would expand Maine’s distracted driving laws by banning the use of hand-held cellphones behind the wheel saw little opposition Wednesday at a public hearing.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, would impose a $50 for first offenses and a minimum $250 fine for subsequent offenses — but provide exemptions for some drivers.

In written testimony to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, Beaudoin said, “even dialing a phone while driving draws your attention away from the road, and drivers have no business putting others in danger.”

Some drivers would not be subject to the ban: police and corrections officers, firefighters and rescue workers, drivers with commercial licenses, doctors, municipal public works employees and Maine Turnpike Authority and Department of Transportation employees, including state contractors.

Representatives from the Maine Nurse Practitioner’s Association and the Maine Water Utilities Association asked that their constituents be exempted as well.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said in an interview that the bill has too many exemptions.

In fact, Schwartz said, police should be subject to the ban and not granted an exemption.

“Police officers can be distracted like anyone else,” he said. “We do not think that we’re better than any other group in the state.”

A lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association also opposed the exemptions.

“If citizens are required to pull to the side of the road to make a cellphone call, then so should everyone else,” said Ann Mitchell.

Jay Nutting, a lobbyist for AT&T, said the telecommunications giant is taking no position on the bill, but he suggested an amendment to exempt drivers in emergency situations from the ban.

The bill would expand on existing laws aimed at curbing cellphone use by motorists. In 2009, Maine lawmakers passed a distracted-driver law, making “failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle” illegal. In 2011, a law was passed that prohibits texting while driving.

The National Safety Council estimates that 21 percent of car accidents in the United States in 2010 involved motorists talking on hand-held and hands-free phones.

“I think we have to have a social engineering process similar to getting rid of smoking and getting rid of drinking and driving to really address this problem,” said Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, a committee member, during the hearing. “We’ve been doing this incrementally.”

Drivers in the Maine Mall area of South Portland offered mixed reactions to the bill Wednesday.

Kevin Brown, 20, of South Portland, said he doesn’t think more restrictions are a good idea, and he doesn’t think they would make a difference.

“People would do it anyway. It wouldn’t make people any more safe,” he said.

Jeanne Rocque, 60, of Augusta, said she doesn’t use her cellphone much in her vehicle. When she gets a call or has to make a call, she said she usually pulls over. She supports further restrictions.

“I think it would make everyone a lot safer,” she said. “There are so many people, especially young people, who rely on their phones.”

Ten states and the District of Columbia ban cellphone use by all drivers, according to a fact sheet provided to the committee.

Figures from the Maine secretary of state’s office show that 325 people were summonsed for distracted driving in Maine in 2011 and 417 in 2012. A total of 280 summonses were issued for texting while driving in those years, the office said.

Maine law also prohibits drivers with learner’s permits and those under the age of 18 from using a cellphone behind the wheel. In the past two years, 191 people have been summoned for breaking those laws, the secretary of state’s office said.

The bill heard Wednesday is nearly identical to one submitted in 2011 by then-Rep. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, which was killed in the Legislature.

The same year, then-Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, successfully sponsored the law that banned texting while driving. He also sponsored the 2009 law.

The Maine Association of Realtors, whose members often work from their cars, has opposed cellphone legislation in the past. Realtors will take no position on the current bill, however, and many members think talking while driving should be illegal, said Megan Sanborn, the association’s spokeswoman.

“The general consensus is that cellphones are becoming more of a distraction,” Sanborn said. “At this point, we see it as a safety issue.”

Diamond said such measures “take a few cycles to pass.” He said Beaudoin’s bill may do better than previous bills because of increased awareness of distracted driving, partly because of past legislative efforts and more public awareness.

“I think we’re getting close to it,” Diamond said. “It’s all about timing.”

Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd — 620-7015
mshepherd@pressherald.com