Ask your police chief. Ask a state trooper. Ask the Department of Public Safety. They all agree: The use of cellphones by drivers has replaced drunken driving as the biggest public safety risk on Maine highways.

All of us see it daily. A car on the interstate drifts into our lane. We have to swerve to avoid it. The driver is on a cellphone. Someone drives through an intersection without stopping. Fortunately, no one is hurt. The driver is on a cellphone. We are stopped at a red light and hear squealing brakes behind us as a car narrowly avoids rear-ending us. The driver is on a cellphone.

In 2014, police listed “driver distraction” as a cause in more than 2,000 collisions on Maine highways, and they tell us that in reality the number is actually much higher. We know that many of those drivers of those were texting or talking on the phone. More than a dozen resulted in a fatality. These are lives that ended needlessly.

A proposal to ban cellphone use while driving is not legislation by anecdote, The subject has been researched in study after study, and the verdict is in. Driving down the road while using a hand-held cellphone is the equivalent of a 0.08 blood alcohol content for one’s ability to concentrate and focus.

When cellphones were first introduced, no one could have predicted all the ways they would affect our lives, both positively and negatively. We certainly did not anticipate that using a hand-held phone while driving is the scientific equivalent of drinking and driving.

We shouldn’t do it. Most of us have been guilty of doing it. In fact, as a group, legislators are probably among the worst offenders. That doesn’t make it right.

We need to remind ourselves the driving is a privilege, not a right. We regulate it, as we should. We tell people to wear their seatbelts. We tell people not to drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and we already tell them they cannot text while driving. All are reasonable limitations. And police tell us that a ban on hand-held calling while driving will make it much easier to enforce our existing distracted driving and no-texting laws.

Opponents of this legislation tell us we cannot legislate common sense. They suggest this is just another example of government intrusion into our personal lives, another intrusion of the “nanny state.” We respectfully disagree.

Many of us have a strong libertarian streak, but, as the saying goes, “my right to extend my fist ends at the tip of your nose.” It is one thing if people choose to put themselves in harm’s way — and maybe we should give them leeway to do so. But it’s a different story when the danger and the damage extends to others. Remember, we are not talking about just a fist — we are talking about a two-ton projectile speeding up to 70 mph down the highway.

Fourteen other states have passed similar laws, and the number is growing. California, Arkansas and New York all have seen fewer motor vehicle deaths on the highway since passing this common-sense measure.

Some say people such as lawyers, real estate agents and sales people won’t be able to earn a living if this bill becomes law in Maine. Parents won’t be able to stay in touch with their children. This proposal, however, specifically permits hands-free use of cellphones. Bluetooth and inexpensive alternatives allow people to make and receive calls and have both hands free to actually steer the car. Yes, that practice is dangerous too, but that should not stop us from at least taking this incremental step.

Our bill to make Maine highways safer is now before the Legislature.

We have a chance to make travel throughout the state measurably safer at little or no inconvenience to people, and more people will get safely to their destinations. We hope that our colleagues in the Legislature will embrace this opportunity.

Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta is a Republican representing Augusta, China, Sidney, Vassalboro and Oakland in the Maine Senate. Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio is Democrat representing part of Sanford in the Maine House.


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