A Few Words about Cell Phone Use While Driving

The managing attorney at McCue Law Office recently asked me to look into what several of us thought was a new state law regarding the use of mobile devices while driving. As it turns out, the “new law” was just a bill that was defeated in the legislature during the spring, conflated in our minds with New Hampshire and New York laws that recently took effect. (I am sure there is some kind of lesson about the limitations of the human mind to be learned here.) I looked into the state of Maine’s distracted-driving law, and, currently, talking on a cellular phone while driving is not expressly prohibited.

Still, as the opponents of the defeated bill noted, Maine already prohibits “failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle.” The statute defines operation of a motor vehicle while distracted to mean that if a driver is distracted by “an activity: (1) That is not necessary to the operation of the vehicle; and (2) That actually impairs, or would reasonably be expected to impair, the ability of the person to safely operate the vehicle.” The statute then makes it a traffic infraction (not a crime) to be involved in a traffic accident while distracted. If a court determines that someone has engaged in distracted driving and a reportable accident at the same time, that driver has committed failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle, and the law does not require that the distracted operation be the cause of the accident.

Furthermore, Maine prohibits “text messaging” while operating a motor vehicle. This is another traffic violation, not a crime. Text messaging, under this statute, means any reading or sending of text messages (including e-mails) by portable electronic device. That part is plain. However, it bears mentioning that it is against state law to send or read a text “on a public way,” even while stopped. A motorist can, however, pull over to safe location (such as a breakdown lane) and stop and then engage in text messaging while at the wheel without violating the law.

In summary: it is illegal to engage in distracted driving and be involved in a reportable accident; it is illegal to send or read texts or e-mails while operating a vehicle on the road, even if no accident results. These are important matters to remember while driving, as they can affect both criminal and civil cases.

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