Driving while doing anything that takes your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road and your mind off in space is as dangerous as driving drunk. So Maine’s distracted-driving penalties should reflect this potential for catastrophe. That they don’t is deplorable, and Gov. Paul LePage was right this week to call for tougher punishments. Motorists won’t get the message unless the state starts treating distracted driving like the serious offense that it is.

Eating, putting on makeup and talking to passengers are all examples of activities that redirect a driver’s attention. But the focus of distracted-driving laws has been on electronic devices — and for good reason. Motorists who use cellphones are just as impaired as drivers who are legally drunk. And using cellphones to read or respond to text messages while driving is particularly dangerous, because texting requires mental focus and the use of one’s hands and eyes. In fact, vehicle safety researchers have found that texting while behind the wheel triples a motorist’s crash risk.

Maine has taken steps in the right direction, enacting a ban on text messaging by motorists in 2011 and passing a law last year that increased the fines for the offense. But as LePage pointed out Tuesday at the launch of the state’s distracted-driving crackdown, that’s not enough. “I really don’t think fines work,” the governor said. “I think we’re going to have to look at giving (distracted-driving offenders) a vacation from driving.”

Granted, the same measure that boosted financial penalties for driving while texting also mandated a minimum 30-day license suspension — but only for someone who’s committed their second offense within a three-year period. Compare that to the punishment for someone convicted for the first time of operating under the influence: a mandatory 150-day license suspension (along with a $400 fine). What’s more, the penalties start escalating right away, depending on aggravating factors. If a first-time OUI offender refuses to take a blood alcohol test, for example, the law authorizes not only a 275-day license suspension but also a 96-hour stint in jail.

The stringent response to drunken driving sends a message about how seriously society views the offense — justifiably so, considering the toll it can take. Simply imposing a fine for first-time offenders in distracted-driving cases conveys an entirely different message — that operating a motor vehicle when your mental, manual and visual abilities are intentionally fettered is no worse than speeding or running a stop sign.

Forty-one people have been killed in Maine in the last three years because of distracted driving. Maine lawmakers could prevent similar tragedies by making sure that even first distracted-driving offenses merit substantial consequences.

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