AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday promised legislation designed to crack down on distracted driving.

In the meantime, truck drivers will be enlisted in a public education campaign that will accompany an increased enforcement effort.

LePage, at a press conference outside the Department of Public Safety building on Commerce Drive, said he will work with lawmakers in January to introduce legislation that would require those using a cellular phone to use a hands-free device while driving. LePage is running for re-election in November.

LePage, who said he has not driven since being sworn into office in January 2011, said the opportunity to watch others as they drive has revealed a frighteningly high percentage of drivers who are distracted by everything from texting to putting on makeup.

“It’s amazing the things you see,” LePage said. “We need to tell our drivers to be safer.”

LePage said suspending licenses is more of an incentive to reduce distracted driving than increasing fines is.

“I used to think fines were the answers, but I really don’t think fines work,” LePage said. “I think we’re going to have to look at giving them a vacation from driving. We’re going to try to make the law stricter so people understand we are serious.”

There have been about 8,000 crashes, resulting in 41 fatalities, because of distracted driving in the past three years, LePage said.

There were more than 3,000 distracted driver-related crashes and 12 fatalities in 2013.

Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said the number of crashes in 2013 was down slightly from 2012, though exact figures were not immediately available. Highway safety officials also were unable to provide information about where and when the 12 fatal crashes occurred.

In 2012, the most recent year statistics are available for, there were 164 fatal accidents in Maine and 981 with serious injuries. How many accidents total — a number that could be compared with the 3,000 total distracted driving crashes in the state — was not available.

To put the 2013 distracted driving figures into perspective, in 2012, 78 of the state’s fatalities were attributed to speeding and 45 were attributed to alcohol impairment. The state website does not list distracted driving statistics for 2012.

“It’s just too much,” LePage said. “A lot of parents, children and mothers are simply not going to be coming home.”

State Police at an April news conference announced plans to step up enforcement of distracted driving laws. Col. Robert Williams, Chief of the Maine State Police, said Tuesday that his department is renewing its commitment and stepping up its enforcement effort.

Those plans include public service announcements, running messages at visitor centers and riding along with truck drivers, which provide an elevated view to see into vehicles. Williams said police also will begin patrolling intersections, where people often text while waiting for a red light.

The campaign also includes the addition of yellow no-texting signs in work site zones, where bureau officials say an average of 500 crashes occur each year.

The state has received $600,000 in federal money through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and highway safety grants to fund the enforcement.

“Distracted drivers are everywhere and not paying attention to their driving,” Williams said. “State Police plan to send the message: no distractions and no excuses.”

State Police issued about 800 citations in 2013 for various distracted driving offenses, including failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle.

Williams said a recent patrol that involved positioning troopers on an overpass revealed a nearly steady stream of people driving while distracted.

“We couldn’t write enough tickets,” Williams said. “It’s everything. We even had an instance of a person playing a guitar while driving.”

The Bureau of Highway Safety also is calling on truck drivers to help remind drivers not to drive while distracted. Signs have been added to the cargo section of 16 commercial trucks with the message, “One text or call could wreck it all.” Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, said she hopes to add the message to more trucks.

“What better way to remind Maine drivers than to reach them while they are actually driving on Maine roads,” she said. “The bureau has made the reduction of distracted driving one of its main priorities.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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