The car crash that killed two teenagers early Saturday morning in West Paris is destined to become a powerful symbol of the dangers of drinking and driving – and of texting and driving, which Maine outlawed last year.

“If there was an accident which illustrates the dangers of texting while driving, to teenagers, this would be it,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. “I hope this would be something all drivers around the state who are tempted to text while driving will remember.”

The 18-year-old driver of the Subaru that crashed on Route 219 will face charges, say police, who allege that Katrina Lowe of West Paris was drinking and was texting friends who were at a party just as she lost control on a patch of ice.

Lowe was in critical condition Sunday at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Hospital officials released no information on her condition Monday.

Killed in the crash were Rebecca Mason, 16, of West Paris, and Logan Dam, 19, of Norway. Jacob Skaff, 22, of South Paris, suffered a head injury but walked away from the crash. Police found him at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, where family members had taken him for treatment.

Just three months ago, Maine’s ban on texting while driving took effect, carrying a $100 fine for offenders.

Young people interviewed Monday said it’s understood that texting and driving is dangerous and against the law, though they know some teens try.

“I feel like people in general know it’s not a good idea, but they sometimes do it anyway,” said Devon Miller, a 17-year-old student at Portland High School. “You don’t think it will happen to you.”

Will Chapman said that in the city, teenagers might text at red lights, though not usually while driving. The West Paris crash “showed that it does happen,” he said.

Ebonie Stevens, 15, said she has had to scold her mother for looking at texts.

“I tell her you can’t do that. It’s illegal,” she said. Stevens, who has her learner’s permit, said she ignores her phone while driving.

“It’s so dangerous. You can get in an accident,” she said.

Some teachers at Portland High School sought to leverage the tragedy into a learning experience, with students saying it came up in health and history classes and probably others. The tragedy of crash, in which 16-year-old Rebecca Mason died just minutes after sneaking out of her house, may have resonated more powerfully with parents than with teenagers who did not know those who died.

A law against distracted driving has been in place in Maine since 2009, but a law specifically banning texting while driving as added last year and took affect Sept. 28.

State officials were unable Monday to provide statistics on how many citations have been issued since the law took affect. The staff at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles said data on citations is usually compiled later in the year. McCausland said he was unaware of how many citations state police may have issued under the new law.

In South Portland, police campaigned against cellphone use even before one of their officers was hospitalized in 2010 after being rear-ended by a vehicle driven by someone distracted by a cellphone while the officer was stopped on the Casco Bay Bridge. Officers there issued seven citations for distracted driving and one for texting while driving since the laws took affect, Police Chief Ed Googins said.

Googins said officers have issued countless warnings about bad driving that may have been related to electronic devices, but they felt it would be difficult to prove.

“We know that alcohol kills people when people drive drunk. We also know that when people are distracted, even on their cellphone, and not paying attention to their driving, that also can kill people,” Googins said. “This is really a tragic reminder that driving requires all of your sense and your full attention.”

McCausland would not say why police believe Lowe was texting at the time of the accident. Police can consult a cellular telephone’s log to determine whether someone had been texting at about the time of a crash and to whom, and sometimes a cellular phone still is on after a crash.

Police also rely on witness statements and the driver’s description of events when available, he said. He would not say whether the lone passenger to survive, Skaff, gave that information to police.

Drivers 21 or older are not allowed to have a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 or more, but drivers under 21 are not allowed to have any alcohol in their system.

“There have been no charges filed, but there will be,” McCausland said. “That decision on charges will be made after the district attorney reviews the case.”

Charges could range from driving while texting and drunken driving up to manslaughter. The latter charge is defined as when a person “recklessly, or with criminal negligence, causes the death of another human being,” according to state law.

“The bottom line is there was drinking involved on the part of an 18-year-old driver who was texting which caused the death of two teenagers,” McCausland said.

Police also are investigating how the people who were underage obtained the alcohol, he said.

Jo Morrissey, coordinator of 21 Reasons, a nonprofit group that works to prevent underage drinking, said it should come as no surprise that teens who were drinking made other poor choices.

“It goes back to kids already have pretty low judgement abilities. Drinking alcohol does not help them make sound judgement,” Morrissey said.

“Teens don’t have any realistic view of what actual consequences are. They’re just wired differently,” she said. “They never think what happens bad to anybody can happen to them.”

 


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