Barring motorists from using hand-held cellphones is a step forward toward the goal of reducing distracted driving, but Maine’s roads won’t become much safer until policymakers and employers are willing to acknowledge that any phone use behind the wheel is a clear and present danger.

Approved Tuesday by the Legislature, the handheld-device ban, which would widen the prohibition on texting while driving that Gov. LePage signed into law in 2011, soon will be headed to the governor’s desk. First-time offenders would be fined $75; a $150 fine would be imposed for the second offense within three years. L.D. 1089, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, also has provisions that could lead to license suspension for repeat offenders.

Legislators have debated and rejected versions of this bill before. What made the difference this time? We can’t say for sure, but it couldn’t have hurt that law enforcement officials came out in favor of the proposal — and for good reason. Distracted driving causes 14,400 accidents in Maine each year, accounting for about 40 percent of all crashes in the state, according to Maj. Chris Grotton of the Maine State Police. Across the country, more than 3,000 people a year lose their lives to distracted drivers.

That L.D. 1089 got the approval of both the Maine House and Maine Senate represents progress. But the law doesn’t go far enough.

The truth is that hands-free devices are just as distracting as hand-held ones, according to a 2008 AAA Foundation review of dozens of traffic-safety studies. Drilling down further, researchers at England’s University of Sussex reported last year that any phone conversation, whether it’s on a hand-held device or a hands-free one, causes the driver to mentally picture what they’re discussing, which draws on the part of the brain that’s normally used to watch the road.

Many states, including Maine, ban all cellphone use by novice drivers, but no state bans all cellphone use by all drivers. That would trigger enormous pushback: Technology has turned our vehicles into our offices, and when we’re on the road, employers expect us to use our devices to keep working during what used to be downtime.

A blanket ban on phone use while driving is the way to go, but no such regulation stands a chance without a shift in everyone’s expectation of how many things they are capable of doing at one time. Until then, drivers will continue to face an unworkable choice between keeping up with their to-do list and keeping themselves — and everyone else on the road – free from harm.

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