Lawmakers on Tuesday will consider fixing an error in Maine’s new hands-free cellphone law that, if left uncorrected, would more than triple the fine for drivers caught talking or texting behind the wheel.

When Maine’s new prohibition on handheld cellphone use while driving took effect in September, lawmakers behind the law were alarmed by an initial court decision to charge first-time offenders $230 in penalties and fees. That was roughly triple the $85 – a $50 fine and $35 in court fees – they had intended when writing the bill.

Those concerns were addressed a day later when the chief judge of Maine’s District Courts agreed to set the first-offense penalty at $85 but only for six months. The fine and court fees could jump back to $230 in April unless the Legislature acts.

“Our intent was clearly to have the first offense be $50 and the second offense be $250,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the lead sponsor of last year’s bill and this year’s effort to clarify the issue. “It wasn’t our intention to make a lot of money” off the law.

The issue was language in the original bill stating that the fine should be “no less than $50” for first-time offenders. Because the law did not give a precise amount, the chief judge of the district courts then set the minimum fine based on penalties for other similar offenses, in this case driving 20 mph over the speed limit.

Diamond’s bill, which will be the subject of a hearing Tuesday in the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, would explicitly set the initial fine at $50 plus fees and then $250 plus fees for subsequent offenses.

The bill, L.D. 1901, would also make several other minor changes to the law. It would clarify that two-way radio operators are exempt from the prohibition, as are individuals reading the type of medical devices that diabetics use to monitor insulin levels.

But Diamond’s bill would also make it clear that it is illegal to use a handheld cellphone while driving in parking lots. Drivers who completely stop and park their vehicles – whether in a parking space or safely on the side of the road – are allowed to hold their phones while talking, texting or using applications.

Diamond said the new language was added for clarity and consistency with Maine’s operating under the influence law, which allows police to charge impaired drivers for driving in parking lots.

Maine is one of at least 20 states and the District of Columbia that prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones behind the wheel.

Maine’s law prohibits almost all drivers from holding or manipulating a cellphone or other electronic device while driving. The law allows the use of hands-free technology, such as Bluetooth, or for drivers to mount a phone in a way that doesn’t obstruct their view of the roadway. But drivers must be able to activate the hands-free features with a single touch, tap or swipe.

The new law has changed the behaviors of some but not all drivers. During the first month, police wrote 232 tickets to drivers for using handheld electronic devices, which is more than legislative analysts had anticipated.

State government offices were closed Monday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday so updated figures were not available. But Diamond said he hopes Maine State Police officials will provide Transportation Committee members with some recent statewide figures during Tuesday’s hearing.

South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins said a good percentage of drivers appear to understand the impetus behind the law and are respecting it. Whether officers issue citations or warnings to first-time offenders often depends on the circumstances of the traffic stop, Googins said.

“I can tell you anecdotally that we are seeing much more compliance, but it is still spotty,” said Googins, who is retiring this month.

In late November and early December, the Biddeford Police Department conducted “sting” operations using plainclothes officers on foot or in unmarked cars who observed driver behavior at busy intersections. They would then alert other officers positioned nearby of any offenders.

There were plenty of them, too. Over a roughly two-week period, Biddeford officers issued 83 tickets and could have written three times as many if they had been able to stop all the drivers who were observed breaking the law, the department said.

Diamond, a former Maine secretary of state who spent years trying to ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving, credited Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Leigh Saufley with working with him last year to lower the penalties for first-time offenders.

“I think it will fly right through,” Diamond said of his bill’s chances in the Legislature. “I want to make sure we get this dealt with.”

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